This Netflix documentary might have been custom made for people trapped in a plague lockdown with nothing but too much time on their hands. Although it follows real people engaged in real things they really did, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness has the feeling of an alien artifact that just came screaming in from some faraway star cluster. There's nothing in it—not the bad clothes, the bad haircuts, the lamentable life choices—that suggests an origin here on Earth. Or maybe I just need to get out more.
The story is set in the world of exotic-animal fanciers—the hinterland entrepreneurs who run private zoos in states like Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina, and the family trade that flocks to them to have pictures taken with cuddly tiger cubs. There are specialists on this circuit—people devoted to camels, bears, bobcats and 20-foot pythons—but the main attraction is tigers. (We're told that there are more of these endangered beasts living in captivity in this country than there are living in the wild throughout the rest of the world.)
The main attraction of this five-hour series—which is not some sort of do-goody nature doc—is an Oklahoma zoo owner named Joe Schreibvogel, who goes by the name "Joe Exotic," and happily describes himself as a "gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet." Look at this guy: the black-leather pants, the pistol on his hip, the rhinestone handcuffs on his belt, the earrings, the eyeliner, and, yes, the mullet, which is naturally dyed platinum. Joe describes his private zoo, which is located in rural Wynnewood, Oklahoma, as the "World's Largest Big Cat Park." But he has his eye on other prizes, as well. He has a studio on his property in which he records songs for his self-released albums (I've heard worse) and he also tapes a wildly eccentric Internet video program. His showbiz style combines the la-di-da cadences of Chris Guest's Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman and the cramped smirk deployed by Mike Myers in the Austin Powers movies. If Joe didn't exist, no writer would dare to invent him.
Despite his unflagging air of manic exuberance, Joe has a problem. Her name is Carole Baskin, and she's one of those PETA people who hates the idea of wild animals being forced to live in cages. So she hates Joe Exotic, and has devoted considerable time to bad-mouthing his cat park and harassing his porta-tiger roadshows. "I consider that bitch to be one of the biggest terrorists in the exotic-animal world right now," Joe says.
Carole, who has an animal operation of her own (all rescues, she claims), can afford to make Joe's life a living hell because, he says, she's a multi-millionaire. This is where Tiger King gets really interesting. According to Joe, and to several other people from whom we hear, Carole inherited all her money from her wealthy second husband, Don, who went missing some years ago and has never been found. (Police remain suspicious and the case is still open.) Carole's behavior at the time of Don's disappearance was certainly odd, and rumors abound, the most colorful one being that Carole fed her dead hub to her tigers. Joe has improved on this story with his suggestion that Carole actually fed Don's dissected body into a meat grinder. (Carole allows that she does own a meat grinder, but that it's quite small.)
As Carole makes Joe's life increasingly difficult, he becomes obsessed with her. "She was my number-one murdered-her-husband-and-fed-him-to-the-tigers crazy bitch," he says. He mused about flying a helicopter over her animal park and dropping grenades on it. And in one installment of his Internet show, we see him taking aim at a blow-up sex doll that's been rigged to look like Carole and then shooting it in the head. Lawsuits were inevitable and extensive.
Through all of this hoopla, we also get to make the acquaintance of some of Joe's fellow zoo enthusiasts. One of these, a man who calls himself Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, is a ponytailed collector of young women, whom he enjoys dressing in sexy cat-centric party outfits. One woman says that Antle is a doctor of "mystical science"; another reports that he pressured her to get breast implants (which she did). There's also a Las Vegas character named Jeff Lowe, a proud swinger whom we see with his very pregnant wife poring over some photos of potential nannies—searching for one who'll be hot enough for Jeff's continuing carnal needs. Then there's Mario Tabraue, a major-league drug dealer (retired) who believes he may have been the model for Tony Montana in Scarface. Is there room here to note that Joe Exotic has two husbands, and a third on the way?
Made over a period of five years by directors Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode, Tiger King bears unsurprising similarities to Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line (wisps of dreamtime pacing and a few unnecessary recreated scenes). The material—the wild characters and their insane machinations – is all that any connoisseur of weird Americana could want. Unfortunately, it becomes a bit of a slog as the end heaves into view——these are basically stupid, cruddy people, and having made their acquaintance, you may, after the third or fourth hour, find yourself growing eager to unmake it.