The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is Netflix’s latest in a long series of true crime documentaries. This one is about Caleb McGillivary, better known as Kai, a homeless nomad who became famous in 2013 for allegedly saving someone’s life by hitting an assailant over the head with a hatchet.
Kai immediately became a media sensation as he came across as a benevolent free spirit who just happened to be at the right place to perform a brave deed. His story, however, takes a dark turn.
The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker, directed by Colette Camden, is about many things beyond Kai himself. It’s about homelessness, substance abuse, childhood abuse, mental illness, and, perhaps most of all, a celebrity-hooked culture desperate to find the next reality TV star.
The Next Reality Star
In an attempt to cash in on Kai’s popularity, there was a feeding frenzy to get him booked on TV shows from Jimmy Kimmel to the Kardashians. Through all of this, Kai is revealed to be an unstable character with many facets to his personality. In between TV appearances, he indulges in binge drinking, urinates in public, and makes statements that reveal a troubled past and a tenuous grip on reality.
From Hero to Convicted Killer
Kai is accused of killing a lawyer in his 70s who gave him a place to sleep. According to Kai, the older man sexually assaulted him and he was acting in self-defense. The brutality of the attack makes this hard to believe. Even if there is some truth to Kai’s version, it seems unlikely he couldn’t have escaped the man’s home without killing him.
A Not-So-Speedy Trial
Another issue that the doc casually brings up near the end is how flawed and inefficient the justice system is. All of the events took place in 2013 but Kai’s trial did not occur until 2019. If had been innocent, he would have spent 6 years in jail awaiting trial, which clearly goes against the Constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial.
Fabricating a Celebrity
Kai as a heroic figure was questionable from the start. After all, he was in the very car of the assailant he ended up clobbering. There is also the question of how he happened to have a deadly weapon ready at hand.
The real message of this movie, whether intended or not, is more about the pathology of a celebrity-centric culture. Even if his initial actions were justified, he was clearly a troubled young man, homeless and with a history of abuse. However, he became surrounded by people who focused only on his surface-level charisma and were eager to turn him into the next big thing. Were they to blame for Kai’s eventual act of violence? Probably not, but they certainly didn’t do anything to help him either.
Is The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker Worth Watching?
Unlike many docu-series on streaming services lately, this one is a stand-alone film. In some ways, this is a relief, as many such series are stretched out beyond what the material justifies. In this case, however, the movie could probably have been split at least into two episodes. The quick transition from Kai being embraced by the media to his murder conviction is fairly abrupt. Nonetheless, the story itself has so many compelling elements that it remains interesting, mainly as a sad commentary on celebrity culture.