When “Kai,” the quickly-dubbed “hatchet-wielding hitchiker” went viral in 2013 (“smash smash suh-MASH“), it was a story near and dear to my heart. Probably that’s a corny thing to say about anything that goes viral, which clearly touched people all over the world in similar ways, but that’s how it felt.
Kai was just that kind of story. The kind that in those days made me drop everything and write up a post, regardless of how much it actually fit my beat. For one thing, it happened in Fresno, the city where I’ve long told people I’m from and now actually live. For another, there was just something fascinating about “Kai.”
Quickly famous for stopping a potential mass killing in progress by bludgeoning the perp with a hatchet and then giving an interview that careened from uplifting to hilarious to unhinged, Kai (real name: Caleb Lawrence McGillvary) went on to get Milkshake Duck‘d in record time. This before the term “Milkshake Duck” had even been invented. He’s currently doing time for murder (spoiler alert kinda but not really).
Even at the time it felt like there must be more to this story, and yet it sort of just went away — from viral sensation to Jimmy Kimmel to prison in barely a few months. These days it lives just on the periphery of our collective consciousness, something we vaguely remember happening but forget the details of.
Which is to say, the perfect subject for a documentary in 2023. These days, when any viral news event spawns competing documentary projects before the duck shakes have even been milked, that’s no faint praise. The list of projects that have fallen into the awkward territory between tired of hearing about it and remember that? is long, and no one needs another Comey Rule. In that sense, Netflix’s The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker comes just at the right time. And kudos to Netflix and director Collette Camden (a prolific director of TV documentaries, many for the BBC) for giving us one stand-alone, 85-minute documentary feature rather than the de rigeur, hopelessly padded four-episode docuseries.
Yet while The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker may not need more run time, it could certainly use more insight. It offers many tantalizing details, making it that much more infuriating when it descends into yet another round of “maybe the media is to blame?!”
It’s not as if Camden didn’t do some legwork. The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker interviews, for the first time that I’ve seen, Kai’s mother and cousin, and reveals his true place of origin (Edmonton, Alberta Canada). Yet Camden has a habit of tugging threads just long enough to reveal some controversy and immediately moving onto something else. As if her idea of balanced coverage was to simply find two people who disagreed. In conclusion, America is a land of contrasts…
It’s natural that a documentary like this will have healthy chunk devoted to “remember that?” It has to refresh our memory before it can move onto revelations, and The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker does whet the appetite admirably. Through interviews with the people who “discovered” Kai, notably then-KMPH reporter Jessob Reisbeck, who conducted the initial interview, and his cameramen and producers, Camden thoughtfully conveys what made Kai so intriguing in the first place.
He was sort of a hobo with a heart of gold (“Before I say anything else, I want to say no matter what you done, you deserve respect…“), homeless and stony in an 80s surfer dude kind of way (That was like the biggest wave I’ve ever ridden in my life), with a comedian’s sense of timing (Q: Would you do it again? A: …Club him in the head with a hatchet?). He was clearly also an unreliable narrator and capable of serious violence (braining a guy with a hatchet, showing scars from knocking a guy’s teeth out, etc). His particular stew of compassion and malice was baked in from the beginning. It’s what made him intriguing. Yet Camden sort of presents Kai’s violent tendencies as red flags we should’ve seen but missed.
Camden is at her best delivering the untold story of what it was like trying to wrangle this unhinged, completely unpredictable and usually drunk guy onto his Jimmy Kimmel appearance (through interviews with various producers, fixers, and reality show gadflies). Great story! Throughout, Kai goes off on tangents about fluoride as a method of mass mind control, the government as an evil empire, and organized cabals of child predators. These are all now staples of the red-pilled conspiracy-net, but Camden doesn’t really explore this at all, or how this presumably not-very-online guy got caught up in them. That “Kai’s” accent goes from Hawaiian to Canadian also goes unremarked upon.
When Kai intimates that he was a victim of horrific child abuse, his cousin at first seems to corroborate this before Camden interviews Kai’s mother. The mother explains it away casually, locking Caleb in his room as a logical attempt to deal with a hyperactive child. Some editorial authority would’ve been crucial here, but Camden exerts little. She’s equally hands-off when it comes to the crime for which McGillvary is currently doing time — killing a New Jersey lawyer who McGillvary says tried to rape him. Was it really self-defense against a rapist, as McGillvary contends, or was it, as the prosecution contends… wait, what does the prosecution even contend? They take pains to show that the killing was “premeditated,” but the question of what the actual motive was remains wide open.
Camden introduces a subplot about McGillvary potentially using public sex offender registries to try to “hunt” rapists and pedophiles. Then, incredibly, does nothing to explain if or why he might’ve thought his victim was a sex offender. Instead we get the media people doing introspection about how maybe it was wrong to try to give this guy a reality show.
This seems to reflect a broader trend in historical revisionism, whereby media proves that the only kind of criticism it understands is media criticism. Was the media too mean to Britney Spears?? Was the media too mean to Princess Di?? Should the media have known Kai was dangerous??
This flagellation is inevitably just as facile as whatever inappropriate-by-today’s-standards thing they’re self-flagellating over, often as a way to bypass more substantive critique (like, why was Britney Spears being interviewed on Barbara Walters as a teenager in the first place? Why was “Kai” homeless and hitchhiking in the first place?). And what should people have done? Tut-tutted more? Been more paternalistic and measured in their excitement? Not stopped to look at a train wreck? Especially as it relates to Kai, the Forrest Gump of 20-teens web trends, “what should the media have done differently” strikes me as the most asinine question possible.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker was smart to explore this subject and in many ways is a good start, but as it stands feels frustratingly incomplete. Sometimes maybe competing doc projects are a good thing.