With the proclaimed “Tiger King” in custody for the foreseeable, it was inevitable that documentarians and the general public would obsess over the man behind bars. Who, really, is Joe Exotic? Documentarian and veteran of weird culture, Louis Theroux, looks to dig down deep into the degeneracy of this strange collection of characters in his documentary, Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic. But impure hounds of the big cat industry are just that. Impure. It was the issue with Tiger King anyway, and it is the same issue with Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic. How are audiences meant to care for these caricatures when neither party looks to be of any clear or interesting conscience?
The simple answer is, they cannot. What stirs the debate over Tiger King and this follow-up documentary is the water cooler moments created by the Netflix miniseries. Bad people do bad things to good creatures. That is the shtick, and it stays true throughout all platforms Exotic has turned up on. Debates over who was to blame, the disappearance of Carole Baskin’s husband, it is all old ground, re-treaded by Theroux who encountered these people long before they were pop culture cannon fodder. With this past experience, audiences can be forgiven for expecting a different twist to the tale. Instead, it provides a general update. A “where are they now?” article extended to feature-length proportions. Are these people interesting enough for that? Not particularly, but the media buzz keeps them alive.
A shame, too, since Theroux asks all the right questions. He does not coax out the best of answers, but like his follow-up on Jimmy Saville, he is not there to ask questions. He is there to reflect. That is what Saville was, and it is what he was criticised most for. With Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic, he at least does not have the criticism of massaging the facts and manipulating the emotions of uncomfortable and endangered victims who have been thrown into the spotlight. Exotic was and still is very public about his highs and lows, much to the detriment of Theroux, who spends most of this documentary recounting and fact-checking what we already know and what audiences invested in this saga will already believe.
It is a fitting and useful distraction to the world around us, but Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic is a weak effort from the documentarian. His reflection is aimless because there is nothing for him to reflect on. What can audiences gain from hearing Theroux talk about a man he knew only in passing from a decade before. A good chunk of time is given to the manipulation of Exotic and how it covered his back for so long, but that should have been the focus of the documentary. Instead, Theroux follows the loose threads that have no way of tying themselves together. Like any good documentarian, he has fallen into the nest and tried to untangle himself, but in doing so should have realised far sooner that the neat bow tied by Netflix was never going to loosen.