The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker
In 2013 a transient named Kai jumped to a brief bit of social media fame when he intervened in what appeared to be a moment of attempted vehicular homicide, and then gave a viral-worthy interview afterwards espousing a hippy philosophy matched with a recitation of how it feels to “Smash, smash, smash” a bad person. TV invitations and reality show offers abounded in the aftermath, but Kai – real name Caleb McGillvary – was hiding a seriously dark past that lead into an even darker future.
I’ll admit that I am mostly burnt out on these kinds of Netflix documentaries, that pretty much peaked early with Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and have since become formulaic and predictable to the point of obsolescence, with things like Operation Varsity Blues and The Tinder Swindler. You can’t help but roll your eyes at the introduction to talking heads, always allowed the opportunity to walk to the chair before the caption telling you who they are appears, like we’re sitting in the front row of a peculiarly well-worn talk show: one for this film, that featured a police officer getting to dramatically whip off some sunglasses, seems especially designed to make you roll your eyes in response.
If asked to come up with a term for this kind of project, I think I would go with “Wikipedia Documentary”. That is, you could decide instead of watching this to read up on Kai’s Wikipedia page, and get the same kind of experience in a much shorter time. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is for Kai what White Hot was for Abercrombie And Fitch: a recordation exercise that aims to just get the facts out to as wide an audience as possible in an palatable a way as possible. We’re taken through the beats of the Kai story – the assault, the brief media storm, the Kimmel appearance, the social media fame, the manhunt for murder, the arrest, the conviction – in a very straightforward manner. About the only big surprise, if you are completely unknowing of the Kai story anyway, is the comments offered by those who saw Kai’s dark side in the days immediately after his leap for fame, but who were dismissed or silenced by the sheer power of the popular narrative, which wanted to stay focused on the feel-good story of a bandana wearing gonzo-like vigilante with an infectiously alluring manner and an uncaring attitude. For those completely ignorant of the circumstances, well, it probably shouldn’t come as a shocking surprise that a long-term homeless man who boasts about his drug and alcohol use and has demonstrated violent tendencies is suffering from severe mental health problems, that probably contributed to an incident where he killed someone.
Where The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker falls down is in its lack of thesis. It gives us the Wikipedia summary of Kai’s time in the spotlight, but never anything more than that: director Colette Camden seems essentially to be telling a story in the most literal terms, which I don’t think is good enough for documentary film-making. Very late on the question is asked by one of the talking heads as to who is to blame, really, for what happened, with it inferred that it is the media because it is they who made a celebrity out of Kai. But such celebrity didn’t make him a murderer, and Kai, as far as I am aware, has never claimed that media attention was involved in the circumstances that led to the death of Joseph Galfy, however it happened. If The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is hanging its hat on the idea that going viral made Kai a killer, then it presents no compelling evidence to back that assertion up. McGillvary himself has criticised Netflix for making this film without compensating him, but he has much bigger problems in his life.
This is far from the last time that Netflix is going to have a Wikipedia Documentary in its top ten. They are presumably cheap and easy to make, in exchange for drawing a great deal of eyes who are interested in the subject matter and not put off by an overly-long running time. The downside is that they really aren’t much good, only reaching higher levels when the subject matter is truly intriguing, like the aforementioned Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is not one of those stories for me, being a mostly predictable, but still quite sad, tale of a young man with a bad background who needed the kind of help that society wasn’t in a position to give him, and who ended up taking a life. Give the Wikipedia page a look instead. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).