How dumb can people be?
That is the question that’s posed by the new Netflix documentary, The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker, and the answer would appear to be that they can be extremely dumb. The documentary takes a look at the story of Caleb “Kai” McGillvary, who went from being an internet sensation to an accused murderer over the course of three months in 2013. Even more so, though, it’s about the people who enabled him, through a combination of their own stupidity and greed.
Kai first found fame when he was credited with stopping a hate crime. A man named Jett McBride smashed his car into a black pedestrian and, while the pedestrian was trapped between the car and a parked truck, McBride attacked the people who attempted to help. Kai, who was a hitchhiker who McBride had apparently picked up just a few hours before, jumped out of the car and proceeded to hit McBride three times with a hatchet. A local news reporter interviewed Kai afterwards and was immediately taken with Kai’s spaced-out style.
At the time, it’s perhaps understandable that people were so happy that Kai had prevented McBride from killing several people that they didn’t stop to ask themselves why Kai had a hatchet with him in the first place. Still, it does seem like it would have been a good thing to consider before the reporter uploaded his interview with Kai to YouTube. And when Kai became a viral sensation (though I have to admit that I had never even heard of him until I saw this documentary so perhaps viral is in the eye of the beholder), maybe a few people should have said, “Before we try to make him a star, maybe we should consider that the only thing we know about him is that he’s been traveling around the country with a freaking hatchet in his backpack.”
Instead, the reporter tracked down Kai for a second interview. Kai played guitar and expounded on his philosophy of life. (Jack Kerouac would have kicked Kai out of a moving car but other people were impressed.) Jimmy Kimmel had him on his show as a guest, though the interview was cut short by the fact that Kai was obviously unstable. Despite the fact that Kai was an unpredictable alcoholic with a violent streak, there was talk of giving Kai his own reality show. One of the documentary’s cringiest moments comes when someone says that it was felt Kai could be an unhoused Kardashian and that he could star in a show about how happy people were to be living on the streets. None of those plans really came to fruition but Kai still remained popular enough that someone was always willing to buy him a drink or let him crash at their place for the night. When a prominent New Jersey attorney was found beaten to death in his home, police were surprised to discover that the last man the attorney had been seen with was Kai, the Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker.
This documentary is about the odd nature of fame in the internet age. It’s been said that, due to social media, everyone has at least 15 devoted fans and that’s probably true. That said, this documentary is even more about stupidity. Kai is not interviewed but the people who made him famous are spoken with and, with one or two exceptions, every single one of them comes across as being either extremely stupid, extremely callous, or both. Everyone was so eager to discover (and profit off of) the newest sensation that none of them stopped to consider that Kai was an obviously unstable alcoholic who was hitchhiking across the country with a hatchet. Indeed, he would later brag that Jett McBride went crazy specifically because Kai gave him a joint laced with LSD. (For the record, when Jett McBride was arrested and taken to prison, he tested positive only for marijuana. So, Kai probably was lying about that but who would brag, even falsely, about inspiring someone to commit a hate crime?) Everyone was so eager to make Kai a star that no one stopped to wonder if they should.
Anyway, it’s an interesting documentary. The main lesson is don’t trust anyone who just happens to have a hatchet on them, regardless of whether or not they’re a funny stoner who can play the guitar. It’s a good lesson to learn.