Looking for a Netflix crime hit that doesn’t require a multi-episode commitment but will leave you brooding for days? Check out The Hatchet-Schwinging Hitchhiker, Netflix’s unofficial nominee for Show Whose Title Sounds Most Like a Weekly World News Headline. It’s not one of those multi-episode series, like– instead, this documentary unrolls in less than an hour and a half.
Buckle up because it’s getting complicated. In 2013, a man named Jett McBride intentionally drove his car into a California utility worker, then got out and attacked both the injured man and bystanders who were trying to help. But this crime is not the focus of this story. As things got crazy, a hitchhiker jumped out of McBride’s car and raced to the rescue, defending the others by attacking McBride with a hatchet.
The hitchhiker, a Canadian whose name is Caleb Lawrence McGillvary but drove from Quay, gave a television interview to reporter Jessob Reisbeck. The interview went viral, in part because wide-eyed, talkative, possibly stoned Kai, a Pauly Shore lookalike, reenacted the hatchet strokes while yelling, “Smash, smash, suh-MASH!”
And then… well, you know that internet slang term “milkshake duck”? Invented by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, who is stopping by pixelated boat On Twitter, it describes a common scenario in which the internet falls in love with someone who seems downright charming, in this case a duck drinking milkshakes. But just five seconds later, the duck is revealed to be racist and falls from grace. (Notice , rose to fame after popping a question during a 2016 town hall-style presidential debate? He was an early example.)
Kai basked in internet fame for a little over five seconds. His interview was edited and reposted to millions of views. He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, and there was talk of giving him his own reality show, a la the Kardashians. Stephen Colbert joked on his show, “For the first time in human history, people are like, ‘Boy, we’re really lucky that homeless hitchhiker carried a hatchet.'”
The Netflix show interviews Hollywood producers and journalists who seem completely dazzled by Kai’s story – or the story they so desperately want. They see him as Chance, the naïve gardener of the film and novel Being There, whose simplicity convinces people his still waters run deep. They literally know nothing about Kai – where he’s from, how he reacts to everything – but they’re ready to crown him as the next hot star. It’s unnerving how quickly they rush to mold an unfortunate hitchhiker with disturbing and obvious mental health issues into the next big thing.
But Kai soon reveals he’s not exactly what Hollywood expected. You wonder why these high-paid talent scouts ever thought that a homeless man wielding a hatchet could easily morph into Brad Pitt. You can’t seem to get Kai into a hotel lobby without him peeing on a desk.
Then, just months after the first incident that made him famous, Kai is arrested – for murder. The Netflix documentary doesn’t really explain the crime well, instead glossing over the poor victim. It’s obvious that this is a milkshake duck story, not a true crime story that takes you through the courtroom details. We’re not here for trial logs, but to learn how quickly a viral video can bring fame and all sorts of financial opportunities to a stranger, and then reality can bring them down to earth in a giant suh-MASH.
The Hatchet-wielding hitchhiker certainly has its weaknesses. There are claims that Kai was abused as a child, but his mother gives an interview where she tells a different story that isn’t really addressed. There is evidence that Kai caused the original attack by drugging Jett McBride before the intentional car crash. Most importantly, the murder Kai commits is explained in such a sketchy way that I’m still a little confused and had to turn to other online news sources for details.
But once the show is on, it’s impossible to turn it off. It’s fascinating to see people admit they’ve fallen in love with a viral video star who found fame purely by accident and whose fall was instant and horrific. And at a time when streaming services seem to be rolling out more and more multi-episode series (see Netflix’s) this fast-paced show lasts just one hour and 25 minutes. When it’s over, you won’t know the smallest details of Kai’s life and crimes, but you’ll be left with some thought-provoking questions about viral fame and its aftermath.
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