'Tiger King' Netflix Film Review: A 'Joe Exotic' Wink at Lost Teeth, Lost Limbs and Lost Souls

Mike Fisher

There are things missing from the main characters of the Netflix documentary Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness about a human menagerie of oddballs who purport to love "big cats.''

What are those missing things? Teeth. Limbs. Souls.

What is almost ever-present in Tiger King's minute-by-OMG-minute sociological deep-diving into an American sub-sub-culture is a con artist's sad truth: Via their sick obsession with wild animals, these misfits, many of whom only a pet could love, are as caged in as the beasts themselves.

"Caged in'' because, it seems to me, the con artist is always trapped by his own behavior, especially if his behavior is socially unacceptable. His only freedom is a wink into the camera of life (or in this case, the camera of documentarians Rebecca Chaiklin and Eric Goode) to acknowledge that part of what they're selling is an unreal magic trick.

Which brings us to "Joe Exotic,'' who is really either Joseph Maldonado-Passage or Joe Schreibvogel. But "Joe Exotic''? That is your wink, and if you didn't catch it, he just comes right out and tells you, describing himself as a "gay, gun-carrying redneck with a mullet."

Of course, that's not even a fraction of what Joe is.

"Joe Exotic,'' stationed in the backwoods of rural Wynnewood, Oklahoma, is the proprietor of what he calls the "World's Largest Big Cat Park." He sits in the throne (literally, the "Tiger King'' has a throne) overseeing a kingdom overflowing with wild animals and wild humans. Joe, 50-ish, alternately struts, prances and limps around the grounds wearing the earring in his eyebrow and the eyeliner on his lashes and the handcuffs on his belt and the pistol on his hip and the cowboy hat from which the long, scraggly platinum mullet flows.

Joe aspires to be a magician and a country-music star (he has a studio on his property and releases his own songs, including "Here, Kitty, Kitty'') and the President of The United States. (Yes, he runs. Falling a bit short, he tries for Governor of Oklahoma. And gets votes.)

Mostly, though, he wants somebody to love, honor and especially obey him as he ekes out a semi-celebrity existence in the "big cat'' business, which means not only showing them off in his zoo, but also, it appears, running a wildlife version of a "puppy mill.''

He has help from a nice trans person named "Saff'' who has sacrificed an arm to the zoo (caught on film), and from another fella missing both legs, and from a Dallas-connected former "Inside Edition'' reporter named Rick Kirkham who now fancies himself as a "film-maker'' despite the obvious aftereffects of what I'm guessing was a meth addiction. (Maybe being accused of burning down one of Joe's buildings while burning alive the alligators that lived there did that to him. I don't know.)

Joe, explains Kirkham, not looking or sounding quite as ready-for-Bill-O'Reilly as he used to be, “is a mythical character living out in the middle of Bumf--k, Oklahoma, who owned 1,200 tigers and lions and bears and monkeys and s---.”

Oh, and Joe finds emotional support from his two husbands - though neither of the spacey young fellas defines himself as "gay.''

Joe's universe eventually expands into a wider world of exotic-animal fanciers. Enter more con artists and more camera winks.

We meet Bhagavan "Doc" Antle, a ponytailed collector of animals ... and young women. He portrays himself not only as a doctor but also as a guru, which I suppose is how he persuades his harem to dress up in sexy cat outfits. 

“Nothing,'' Doc says, "is cooler, sexier, and more significant to the world we live in today than a tiger.”

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*We meet Jeff Lowe, who drives a Ferrari around rural Oklahoma(!) and hangs in Las Vegas, where he pulls tiger cubs out of suitcases as a lure to getting women to engage in threesomes with him and his pregnant wife. 

“A little p----'' Lowe gurgles, enamored of his clever wordplay, "gets a lot of p----.''


We meet Mario Tabraue, a former drug lord who brags that he was the model for Tony Montana in Scarface (which is true) and who ordered the murder of a federal agent, allegedly tried to dismember a body with machete and sold monkeys to fuel his cocaine habit.

Are we OMG'ing yet?

It is the documentarian's way now to unfurl bigger and better human explosions as their freak show marches on. Making a Murderer, Three Identical Strangers and Abducted In Plain Sight mastered this technique. You are watching pretty much the most outrageous thing you've ever seen ... and then in the next episode, the film-makers essentially roar at you, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!''


And in Tiger King, right on cue to place herself atop this eccentric hierarchy arrives Carole Baskin, the arch-enemy of Joe Exotic. Carole is an "animal-rights activist'' ... except for the fact that she, too, owns a for-profit wildlife zoo.

"I consider that bitch to be one of the biggest terrorists in the exotic-animal world right now," Joe says.

Counters her latest husband, Howard: "Carole is the Mother Theresa of Cats.”

Carole has stashed in her tiger-print purse two items Joe will never have. One is money. Two (in my interpretation) is a brazen lack of conscience - which strips her of any need to "wink'' like the rest of these kooky grifters and drifters.

Joe and Carole exchange unpleasantries, lawsuits and discussions about murder - the latter stemming from the fact that Carole inherited all her money from her wealthy second husband, Don, who went missing ... amid suspicions that Carole had him murdered and then meat-grinder'ed dead hubby to hungry cubbies.

"She's my No. 1 murdered-her-husband-and-fed-him-to-the-tigers crazy bitch," Joe says.

Little wonder, then, in Joe's world of twisted karma, he hires yet another lost soul to travel to Florida to murder Carole.


Karma or not, none of this figures to end well for any the stars of the show - and that includes the animals. At the seven-hour documentary's end, it's noted that many of the animals featured are endangered species. This almost feels like a last-minute, edited-in apology from the film-makers when one isn't necessary.

Speaking of film-making: There is more "Joe Exotic'' to come. Maybe a sequel? And definitely a project starring SNL's wonderful Kate McKinnon attached to play Carole Baskin, though Melissa McCarthy would've worked. (Joe, by the way, could be handled by Matthew McConaughey. Let Will Farrell be "Doc'' and convince Al Pacino to flip-the-script as Mario and consider my post-quarantine movie ticket purchased.)

But for now, and this effort: There are times when nuance is used to suggest the aforementioned overall plight of the tigers; the animals' faces sometimes almost seem to frown for the camera, and Chaiklin and Goode need say no more.

There are other times when in this absurdity broad comedy is the proper tool, as when one scene reveals that Joe's tigers, when they get fed at all, must chow down expired meat thrown out by the local Walmart. And then comes the next scene, in which Joe Exotic's zoo opens up a restaurant that serves up pizza with unique-tasting meat topping.