A decade later, Louis Theroux has second thoughts about Joe Exotic

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A decade later, Louis Theroux has second thoughts about Joe Exotic

By Kylie Northover

Shooting Joe Exotic ★★★
ABC iview

Nine years before Tiger King, the 2020 streaming hit that became a cultural phenomenon, Louis Theroux met Joe Exotic for his doco series America’s Most Dangerous Pets. As with many of his films, Theroux spent much of it looking concerned, asking hard questions with his trademark baffled politeness.

Louis Theroux with Carole and Howard Baskin at Big Cat Rescue in Florida.

Louis Theroux with Carole and Howard Baskin at Big Cat Rescue in Florida.

Like the rest of us, Theroux is intrigued that the Netflix series left many believing Joe was the real victim, and by the substantial campaign to have him pardoned. In the wake of the series, even then-president Donald Trump weighed in, reportedly considering pardoning Joe, while Carole Baskin received widespread criticism and death threats.

Theroux watched the sensationalised Netflix series Tiger King during lockdown; he doesn’t quite offer an opinion, but it’s clear how he felt about it. Didn’t we all?

So when Joe, now serving a 22-year sentence for conspiring to murder animal rights activist Carole Baskin, wrote to Theroux asking to meet him again to “tell the real story”, the filmmaker was on board to pick up where he left off.

Theroux with Joe Exotic’s estranged brother Yarri and his wife Wendy in Texas.

Theroux with Joe Exotic’s estranged brother Yarri and his wife Wendy in Texas.

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It’s not the first time Theroux has revisited one of his earlier works. In 2001, Theroux made a now-famous documentary When Louis Met Jimmy; 15 years later came a follow-up documentary, in which Theroux detailed the extent of the abuse carried out by the films’ subject, the entertainer Jimmy Savile.

Here, we see Theroux watching his 2011 film on captive animals for the first time since it was made, being taken aback at some of the things Joe said, assuming it had been “just talk”. We see Joe ranting about Baskin, then asking for the camera to be turned off. But it’s still recording; we hear Joe declaring his feud with Baskin was getting so serious that “somebody is going to get killed”. He also ‘jokes’ about hiring a hitman.

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When Theroux’s planned interviews with many of Tiger King’s subjects are stymied by legal moves from the producers of the Netflix series, who are planning a sequel, Theroux makes the most of it, revisiting more unseen out-takes from his film.

He meets Carole and Howard Baskin, who discuss their disappointment with Tiger King; unsurprising given the series dedicated an entire episode to Carole’s former husband, Don, who mysteriously disappeared in 1997. Howard describes the show’s producers as “downright cruel”, and Carole says that after the series aired, her phone rang “every two minutes for the next three months and it was people screaming obscenities”.

Joe Exotic, pictured here at his Oklahoma zoo in 2013, is now serving a 22-year sentence for conspiring to murder Baskin.

Joe Exotic, pictured here at his Oklahoma zoo in 2013, is now serving a 22-year sentence for conspiring to murder Baskin.Credit:AP

This doesn’t stop Theroux from asking about Carole’s missing husband, but when Howard shuts that down, the three of them tour Joe’s former animal park, which the Baskins now run and is now largely destroyed. Joe’s house is knee-deep in rubbish, photos of his family and park souvenirs lying among filthy clothes and even some pornographic photos. Theroux seems to find it oddly poignant, which sums up the tone of this doco.

While Theroux frames this doco as both a reflection on his own time with Joe, and a subtle critique of the Tiger King producers’ motives, it’s hard not to feel a little queasy at some of the footage – much of it unaired – from his own 2009 film, such as the (mercifully censored) scene of Joe shooting an ailing horse, and one of Joe’s colleagues defending his ‘roadshows’ where families at local shopping malls paid to handle young tiger cubs.

Then there’s a scene in which Joe gets prickly when asked about the animals’ welfare. Theroux tries to patch things up, even asking Joe for a hug.

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“That’s not something I often do,” Theroux says now, watching the footage. “It’s odd to see how much I seemed to ... somewhat like him.”

Theroux has made a career from delving into controversial characters and issues, but not drawing solid conclusions. But with Shooting Joe Exotic, it’s difficult to watch the out-takes from his original film and not think that perhaps, to a much smaller degree than the unashamedly lurid Tiger King, his own portrayal of Joe Exotic was not entirely as innocent as his trademark faux naivety would like us to believe.

Shooting Joe Exotic is on iview.

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