Looking for a Netflix true-crime hit that doesn’t require a multi-episode commitment but will leave you pondering for days? Watch The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker, Netflix’s unofficial nominee for “Show Whose Title Sounds Most Like a Weekly World News Headline.” It’s not one of those multiple-episode series, like Dahmer — instead, this documentary unrolls in less than an hour and a half.
Buckle up, because it gets complicated. Back in 2013, a man named Jett McBride intentionally ran his car into a California utility worker, then got out of his car and attacked both the injured man and bystanders who tried to help. But that crime isn’t the focus of this story. As things got crazy, a hitchhiker in McBride’s car jumped out 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 went by Kai, gave a TV interview to reporter Jessob Reisbeck. The interview went viral, in part because the wide-eyed, chatty, possibly stoned Kai, a Pauly Shore look-alike, reenacted the hatchet blows while hollering, “Smash, smash, suh-MASH!”
And then … well, know the internet slang term “milkshake duck“? Invented by Australian cartoonist Ben Ward, who goes by pixelatedboat on Twitter, it describes a common scenario in which the internet falls in love with someone who seems perfectly charming, in this case, a duck who drinks milkshakes. But just five seconds later, the duck is discovered to be racist, and it falls from grace. (Remember Ken Bone, made famous after asking a question during a 2016 town-hall-style presidential debate? He was an early example.)
Kai basked in internet fame for a bit longer than five seconds. His interview got edited and rereleased 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 saying, ‘Boy, we sure are lucky that homeless hitchhiker was carrying a hatchet.'”
The Netflix show interviews Hollywood producers and journalists who seem completely dazzled by Kai’s story — or the story they want so badly for it to be. They see him as Chance, the naive gardener from the movie and novel Being There, whose very simplicity convinces people his still waters run deep. They literally know nothing about Kai — where he came from, how he’ll react to anything — but they’re ready to crown him the next hot star. It’s unnerving how quickly they rush to mold a hapless hitchhiker with troubling and glaringly obvious mental health issues into the next big thing.
But Kai soon reveals he’s not exactly what Hollywood expected. You wonder why these big-salaried talent-spotters ever thought an unhoused man who carried a hatchet was going to be able to smoothly turn into Brad Pitt. They can’t seem to walk Kai into a hotel lobby without him peeing on a desk.
Then, just months after the initial incident that made him famous, Kai is arrested — for murder. The Netflix documentary doesn’t really do a great job of explaining the crime, all but glossing over the poor victim. It’s apparent this is a milkshake duck story, not a walk-you-through-the-courtroom-details true-crime story. We’re not here to get trial transcripts, but to learn about how quickly a viral video can bring a stranger fame and all kinds of monetary opportunities, and then reality can bring them down to earth with one giant suh-MASH.
The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker has its flaws, for sure. There are claims Kai was abused as a child, but his mother gives an interview where she tells a different story that’s not really addressed. There are suggestions Kai caused the original attack by giving Jett McBride drugs before the intentional car crash. Most of all, the murder Kai commits is so sketchily explained I’m still somewhat confused about it, and had to turn to other online news sources for details.
But once the show starts running, it’s impossible to turn it off. It’s fascinating to watch people confess they fell for a viral video star who became famous purely by chance, and whose fall from grace was immediate and horrific. And at a time when streaming services seem to be cranking out more and more multi-episode series (see Netflix’s Dahmer), this fast-paced show is just an hour and 25 minutes long. When it’s over, you won’t know the minute details of Kai’s life and crime, but you will be left with some thought-provoking questions about viral fame and its consequences.
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Gael Fashingbauer Cooper