Netflix Releasing: The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker (2023) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Netflix
Which is scarier, violent crime or the ways in which the general population turns a blind eye to it if not celebrating it outright?  This was a question posed rather sardonically by Oliver Stone’s 1994 magnum opus Natural Born Killers, a film less about the blood spilled by the two titular serial killers than the vultures lapping up the infamy generated by them.  Despite hitting the nail on the head, that film was a work of fiction inspired by true news stories which seemed to obsess over crime. 
Sometime in 2013, however, the celebrity making of a criminal based purely on a clickbait hungry news reporter became undeniably real in the American cultural consciousness with the arrival of Caleb Lawrence McGillvary or Kai, otherwise known as The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker chronicled in the new Netflix documentary of the same name.  A chilling snapshot of distinctly American craving of viral sensation without background checking first, the film is sort of like Dog Day Afternoon or Natural Born Killers come to life with an obvious criminal hobnobbing with respected celebrity figures. 

After Kai, a homeless man hitchhiked with Jett Simmons McBride, a 300-pound man claiming to be Jesus Christ, McBride crashed into a pedestrian with his vehicle.  Kai jumps out of the car to try and “help” when McBride proceeds to attack a bystander trying to also help, prompting Kai to draw a hatchet from his back pack and strikes him in the back of the head.  After being interrogated and released by police, he stumbles upon a news reporter filming the story and recounts his version of the story describing the hatchet blows to the man with “smash, smash, smash”.  Not knowing what they captured, the reporters proceeded to upload the interview online where it catches viral fire immediately.
An overnight media sensation garnering some 8 million views after being uploaded, Kai The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker became a cult hero who generated an autotuned meme song by The Gregory Brothers, an interview on Inside Edition and further still appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!  A fast talking “likable” personality who also had a keen handle on the acoustic guitar, Kai even got a special show on television where he watched and reviewed movies.  A couple months later, everything changed when he was arrested on murder charges for the death of New Jersey attorney Joseph Galfy and was soon after convicted of first-degree murder. 

How did he hide in plain sight his criminality?  What is it about human nature that wants to warm up to dangerous individuals if not romanticize them outright?  Is the media so bloodthirsty they’re willing to ignore red flags and warning signs just for a few more minutes of juicy fame?  These are all questions that invariably arise over the course of the documentary which is interspersed with archival and newly conducted interviews of the reporters, the detectives who tracked Kai down and the perpetrator’s mother who seems to abdicate all responsibility for her child’s upbringing.  

Framed in 2.35:1 panoramic widescreen by cinematographer Patrick Smith and subtly scored by The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance composer Samuel Smith, the digitally photographed documentary is appropriately chilling tonally and makes good use of editing as well as working in never-before-seen outtakes illustrating the obvious recklessness of Kai.  

Directed by regular television series filmworker Colette Camden, the recently dropped Netflix documentary The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker will, yes, tell you everything that’s already there to be found online.  But what it zeroes in on and makes it special is how it captures the guilt and remorse on the reporters and figures of power who came into Kai’s life and gave him the spotlight.  What were they thinking?  How did they unknowingly heroize a murderer?  How come nobody watching bothered to do some checking for any criminal records prior to buying and selling t-shirts of him?  

Partially a documentary film, partially a sad sigh about America’s social bloodlust for the next viral craze in general, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is heavy, disturbing fare that will make you think twice about the next cool video meme garnering clicks and hits at the expense of a human life.

--Andrew Kotwicki