New to Netflix today is the true-crime docu-film, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker. The documentary – written and directed by Colette Camden – tells the real-life story of Caleb ‘Kai’ Lawrence McGillvary, the hatchet wielding hitchhiker who became an internet sensation after he prevented a murder.

For those who don’t recall any of this, the incident took place in West Fresno, California, back in February 2013. McGillvary was a passenger in the car of Jett McBride, when McBride suddenly used his vehicle to run down a man in the street, in what appeared to be a racially motivated attack.

When other citizens saw what had happened, they ran over to help the injured man. But McBride became aggressive and dangerous, threatening their lives in the process too.

It was at that moment that McGillvary – who was sat in the passenger seat and who had witnessed the crime take place – pulled out a hatchet, and bludgeoned McBride three times. This attack abruptly stopped McBride in his tracks and prevented him from causing any further harm, before he was arrested by the police.

Following on from the incident, a local news reporter interviewed McGillvary at the side of the road, and dubbed him a ‘hero’ for his actions with the hatchet. This report then kick-started the media’s interest in McGillvary, and he suddenly went from being a nobody, to a viral sensation over night.

But as the documentary discusses, McGillvary was not the complete hero that some believed him to be. And over the course of an hour and twenty-five minutes, the docu-film shines a light on who he was, and what happened after he became famous.

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Beginning with the bizarre incident involving the hatchet, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker sets the scene to explain how McGillvary suddenly came to the public’s attention. The docu-film details the crime, his intervention with the hatchet, the subsequent news report, and then McGillvary’s rapid rise to fame.  

From here, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker looks at how the internet embraced this ‘hero’ and how he became a viral sensation. It details the media buzz that surrounded him, his television appearances (including multiple stints on The Jimmy Kimmel Show), and how for a hot-minute people couldn’t get enough of his story.

The documentary then moves beyond his initial fame, to explore what took place just a few months later. This is where the film delves into darker territory and details McGillvery’s involvement in another crime – the brutal murder of an elderly man.

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For the record, while McGillvery may have saved someone’s life back in February 2013, he was later convicted of another man’s murder and is currently serving a 57-year sentence in a maximum security prison. He will remain incarcerated for the rest of his life, and is no longer the ‘celebrity’ he briefly was.

I feel it is important to note this, because this man is not a hero. And while this documentary looks at the reasons why he was once viewed in a heroic light, I don’t want this review to give the impression that this is the story of a good Samaritan.  

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Now, what’s interesting about this docu-film, is not so much McGillvery himself, but rather the way in which it explores the media’s fascination with him, and how he was plucked out of nowhere and turned into a star. We live in an age where anyone can become a celebrity, especially if they do something unusual, and this docu-film explains the problems and pitfalls of this way of thinking.

Through conversations with TV insiders, the film looks at the journey that took place for McGillvery, and how he was thrust into the spotlight. Those who were there during his initial discovery were more than aware that he displayed odd behaviour, and yet his potential to become ‘The Next Big Thing’ seemed to outweigh any of his idiosyncrasies.

This is where the real meat of this docu-film lies, and where it is perhaps the most interesting. Step back from the sensational title of the film, and push the subject to one side for a moment, and there are something fascinating insights about the way in which news channels, talk show hosts, and the general public become intrigued by unusual characters, irrespective of who they are, and why they have suddenly become famous.

However, once this docu-film moves beyond this discussion, The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is largely just another Netflix true-crime story about a deeply worrying person. It isn’t quite as sensational as the title might suggest, and it does sag a little in the middle.

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But overall, for anyone unfamiliar with this story, or those who regularly watch true-crime documentaries, this one is certainly very watchable. If nothing else, it reminds audiences to pay attention to red flags, and be ever mindful that day-to-day folk wielding hatchets are unlikely to be good people.  

I can’t say that The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker is must-see viewing, but if you are into this sort of thing then I expect it is one to add to your list.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this review on It’s A Stampede!. For more reviews, check out the recommended reads below.

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