Netflix's lurid documentary series Tiger King was the first streaming and social media phenomenon of lockdown.
But long before last year’s streaming sensation made a household name out of eccentric criminal Joe Exotic, Louis Theroux had already been inside the most bizarre zoo community in the US and has just made a triumphant return with new film Shooting Joe Exotic.
The BBC interviewer first encountered the zoo owner 10 years ago for his documentary, America’s Most Dangerous Pets.
He’d been stunned to see what has unfolded since they first met, with Exotic caught up in attempted murder, scandal and presidential pardon campaigns.
The controversial figure was arrested after finally acting on his seemingly idle threats and promises to harm or kill animal rights campaigner Carole Baskin, and was sentenced to 22 years in jail for (unsuccessfully) plotting her murder.
The brilliantly awkward Theroux was drawn back into the world when the man born as Joseph Schreibvogel, but known around the world as self-styled impressario Joe Exotic, wrote asking him to cover his story and his bid for a pardon.
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While we now know that former US president Donald Trump resisted requests to pardon him on his final day in office this January, the campaign was deemed such a serious possibility that a limo was on hand to whisk him from jail.
Theroux seized the opportunity and the result is a brilliant film, even though we see him hit a massive bump in the road almost at day one.
As Louis is in America getting ready to interview Exotic's former zoo colleagues and contacts for the new film, he is issued with lawyers letters from the team behind the Tiger King series which reveal that almost all the main players — including Exotic — are tied to exclusive contracts and can’t speak to him.
Despite that, Theroux manages to flex his laid back filmmaking muscles for a masterclass in factual storytelling.
Instead of a new chat with the jailed Exotic, he unearths unseen footage from the original documentary, full of dangerous threats, lurid promises and behaviour outlandish even for a man whose reputation is built on the eccentric.
Theroux also interviews the pardon campaign legal team for key updates as well as some Schreibvogel relatives for key background on a murky world marked by allegations of child abuse, violence, fraud and animal neglect.
But crucially, he also got to sit down with the woman seen by many as the ‘villain’ of the Tiger King story – Baskin, whom Exotic was jailed for trying to kill.
Accused by Exotic and his fans of murdering her first husband Don and feeding him to a tiger – which she denies and has never been charged for – she and her husband Howard revealed they’d endured a torrid time of death threats and abuse since the series aired last March.
But in a bizarre twist befitting this whole bonkers episode, the Baskins now find themselves the owners of the Oklahoma zoo at the centre of the story.
Having battled in the courts for years over allegations of mistreatment of animals and breeding tigers and bears to live their lives in cages and shopping mall attractions, the animal sanctuary owners won a landmark copyright case against Exotic’s company, and took ownership of the property.
This led to the most powerful scenes in the film, as Theroux was given access to explore the defunct and now animal-free park. It sat graffitied and wrecked, in stark contrast to the noisy attraction that was teeming with hundreds of beasts during his last visit a decade earlier.
He also gets to rake through Exotic’s abandoned house, finding heaps of rubbish, lewd photos and tattered memorabilia.
Theroux has always been a master of the art, and his films always essential viewing. But to be able to take on the most talked about TV story of the last year, even while denied access to all the key players, and still find new angles, is just incredible.
And then to sum up it all up with a final observation, that Exotic’s jail sentence of 22 years is the same life expectancy for a big cat kept in a cage, is just nothing short of sensational television.
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