Tiger King

Content warning: Animal abuse, sexual abuse

Tiger King might just be the most bizarre apparition of the American Dream ever to haunt our screens. The rise and fall of Joe Exotic, a gay gun-toting redneck willing to disregard the lives of both humans and animals alike in a bid to satisfy his insatiable appetite for notoriety, makes for shocking and spectacular viewing. As long as you can stomach some distressing documentary footage, this series is one that pulls you under in that addictive Netflix way, previously demonstrated in Making a Murderer and Don’t F**k With Cats. It’s morbid and disturbing, and yet you just can’t look away.

Much of the genius of Tiger King spawns from the insanity of the real-life tale that it tells. One gruesome fact that really lingers is that more tigers live in grimy cages in the United States than in their natural habitat globally. Most viewers are almost certainly ignorant of the nefarious world of big cat trading, in which murder plots, extortion and manipulative sex cults mingle in a depraved environment where all morality has ceased to exist. From the manipulative zoo owner, Joe Exotic, to his arch nemesis and supposed cat rescuer Carole Baskin, the individuals involved are as complex and intriguing as they are selfish and deplorable. Filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin are thus provided with the raw material to fashion something truly exciting.

Here, a talented team of documentary makers don’t disappoint – no one can deny that Tiger King is an exhilarating journey into the twisted minds of greedy cat keepers. The editing is superb, with an abundance of well-conducted interviews peppering the narrative to add a real sense of immediacy. The camera pans onto pained faces of both victims and perpetrators in a way that feels heartfelt, not perverse. The storytelling is marvellous, overflowing with twists and turns that implore you to hit that ‘next episode’ button. Although cliff-hangers are often delivered right at the end of episodes in a way that could be deemed frustrating, it’s hard to bemoan the producers for this in the age of online streaming services and the current advent of quarantine.

Yet Tiger King is by no means flawless. In some ways, its chaotic content derails the documentary, preventing it from being profound and ensuring it delivers a confused message. Whilst the focus of the series is on the ‘king’ and not the tigers and other animals, it’s somewhat jarring that the only real voice for these creatures is Carole Baskin, owner of the shadowy “Big Cat Rescue”, who many are understandably going to view as an antagonist anyway. When the series does suddenly try to shine a light on the abused animals and deliver an environmentalist message, it feels too little, too late. If Tiger King wants to push a green narrative, it needs more voices of those committed to genuinely fighting animal cruelty to effectively deliver it. But then, we wouldn’t have quite the same show... 

Maybe I’m being overly critical, and that the point of this production isn’t to depict how humanity degrades the natural world but instead to be enjoyed purely as a true-crime thriller, and I’m just missing the point. Fine. But it doesn’t mean that the issues in Tiger King suddenly cease to exist.

Too much of this tale could be characterised as “he said, she said, he responds …”. There’s nothing wrong with some unanswered questions and the opportunity for differing interpretations of what occurred. Yet Eric Goode, who has a fantastic voice for narration, doesn’t do enough of it. There’s an abundant lack of clarity that reaches beyond ambiguity, and the spectacle becomes almost misdirected and muddled. Yes, it’s a chaotic and absurd story, but that doesn’t exonerate the directors entirely, whose failure to spell out certain facts threatens to undo some of their brilliant work in terms of editing and research.

Tiger King is imperfect. It occasionally misses the opportunity to say something interesting about the way we treat animals, or the way in which wealth and fame can corrupt a person beyond all recognition. But it’s very possible to look beyond these flaws and witness a thrilling albeit disturbing documentary.


Image: Tatiana Popova via 123RF