Louis Theroux – Shooting Joe Exotic review: The documentary this extraordinary story deserves

In this 90-minute one-off, which arrives in the wake of Netflix’s Tiger King, Theroux revisits his subject nine years on and tries to work out what has happened

Trailer released for Louis Theroux documentary 'Shooting Joe Exotic'

Tiger King was one of the most hyped viewing experiences of last year. It was also one of the most uncomfortable. The seven-part Netflix documentary took us into the world of the mullet-haired, gun-loving Joe Maldonado, aka Joe Exotic, a flamboyant Oklahoman tiger zoo owner, and his nemesis, the Florida animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Tiger King was released a few weeks into the first lockdown, just when everyone was ready for a series to sink their teeth into. It was a phenomenon.

At first, Exotic seemed merely exuberant and eccentric, but it gradually became clear that darker forces might be afoot. In January 2019, he was sentenced to 22 years in jail for 19 tiger-related crimes and – even more serious – hiring hitmen to kill Baskin. His supporters claim he was set up. They spread rumours that Baskin had murdered her ex-husband, Don. By the end of the series, it was unclear what journey the viewer was being taken on and who, as far as the documentary was concerned, the real zoo animals were.

A year on, here’s Louis Theroux to remind us that he got there first. A decade before Tiger King, there was America’s Most Dangerous Pets, a 2011 documentary in which Theroux spent time with unusual animal owners, Exotic included. In the 90-minute one-off Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic, Theroux revisits his subject nine years on and tries to work out what has happened, examining his own experience with Exotic and wondering whether he could have done more. The catalyst is a letter Joe sent from the depths of prison lockdown, asking a British journalist to get in touch with Theroux and tell him “I need to tell the real story, but they keep me silenced”.

Read more:

Daniel Kaluuya jokes about royal family and Meghan Markle on SNL

Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan reacts to co-star Regé-Jean Page’s departure

Kate Winslet says she knows ‘at least’ four gay actors who haven’t publicly come out

DMX’s ‘worried’ lawyer updates fans on rapper’s health after heart attack

Theroux has had a busy year. He has done several entertaining podcasts, and this is the latest in a series of films in which he revisits old material. The format suits him. He’s patient and thoughtful first time around, even more so at the second pass. There’s plenty of footage that wasn’t aired before. Off the record but with the camera still rolling, Joe told Louis about hitmen and his fears that either he or Baskin would have to die. Re-examining the footage, Theroux says he thought it was “just talk”. A more measured picture of Exotic emerges, a vulnerable but dangerous man whose strange behaviour was indulged by the people around him until it was too late.

The film doesn’t simply retread old ground. When Tiger King’s producers get wind of Theroux’s plans, their lawyers are in touch to remind him that many of the characters are under exclusive contracts. Exotic seems to have been paid for his contributions. The people “silencing” him are the ones who gave him the fame he’d craved for so long.

Louis Theroux and incarcerated felon and former zoo owner Joe Exotic

“Without realising it, I’d wandered into something very different from the normal documentary terrain,” Theroux intones over footage of himself shaving. He’s fooling no one. For his genial manner, he has a steel backbone and obviously relishes the scrap. You suspect he sees it as a proxy war between Netflix documentaries – loud, trashy and ethically dubious – and Louis Theroux BBC documentaries – measured, intelligent and humane. He has one terrific coup de theatre, interviewing the Baskins at Joe’s repossessed park, where they pick over the rubbish and examine the anti-Baskin graffiti scrawled on the wall. “In my view what [the Netflix filmmakers] did wasn’t just unethical,” says Carole’s husband, Howard, “it was outright cruel.”

The question remains how far into the hall of mirrors Louis can go. Can we look forward to him one day revisiting his revisitations, Louis on Louis on Louis? Whatever he comes up with later, this unrepeatable confluence of subject, phenomenon and previous access will stand as a career highlight. It’s the documentary this extraordinary story deserves. But if you hadn’t had enough of Joe Exotic already, you will afterwards. Time to let imprisoned tiger kings lie.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in