REVIEW: The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker (2023 – Documentary)

Still image from the Netflix documentary, originally from a KMPH News interview.

Directed by Colette Camden.

Every once in a while, my sister will approach me and say: “smash, smash, smash!” or “no matter what you’ve done, you deserve respect, even if you make mistakes. […] You’re worthwhile.” That last quote goes on and on and on. I should explain. My sister doesn’t follow me around to deliver sitcom-like catchphrases or acknowledgments. Rather, she often quotes the ‘songified’ clips from the YouTube channel Schmoyoho. Back in 2013, Schmoyoho released the songified clip “smash. Smash. SMASH!” which featured a viral eyewitness account video of a hitchhiker who describes how he used a hatchet to hit someone, who had picked him up, in the head, when said person endangered a woman’s life. Now, almost exactly ten years later, Netflix has released a documentary about the hitchhiker who became an online sensation. 

The actual Schmoyoho YouTube song is played in the documentary along with other memes, but Schmoyoho is not mentioned, in case you were wondering. The documentary doesn’t just stop and take a look at the viral video, or even just the incident that led to the viral video. It goes on to mention an event later in life when he became the primary suspect in a murder investigation and was later incarcerated. 

I say mention and not ‘detail’ or another word like that because it ultimately feels like a halfhearted attempt to discuss the most important event of his life. Most of the documentary isn’t even about the hitchhiker, known as ‘Kai,’ but rather how others viewed him in his rise to stardom. He is characterized as erratic, chaotic, and charismatic. He is the type of person who can wow you, but also the person who can flip on a dime and scare someone mere seconds after fans had professed their admiration for the way he supposedly handled the incident that made him famous. 

That characterization is believable, and the rise to stardom is interesting, insofar that we see it through the eyes of people who can recognize watch-ability, such as people involved with reality or late-night television, but the documentary fails when it moves beyond the event that made him famous. Although we eventually see interviews with Kai’s first cousin and Kai’s mother, we never go more than skin-deep (not enough questions are asked). It is a far too superficial account of him as a person, and you end up not sure if you should believe his own horrific description of his upbringing or his mother’s all-too-brief response. We mostly hear from the reporter who discovered him and who is presented as Kai’s gatekeeper to stardom. 

With half an hour to go, the documentary finally moves on to focus on the incident that ultimately led to his incarceration, and although we hear from law enforcement and see both surveillance video and some of his interrogation, it is frustratingly superficial. We hear his claims about self-defense, but they are not thoroughly investigated (I realize that this may very well be because there really is nothing to them, but it feels way too suddenly brushed past), and the documentary feels more interested in ending on a sad note about a hitchhiker who had the world at his feet, but who, in failing to seize his moment, took a wild and uncontrolled descent into incarceration. 

The Hatchet-Wielding Hitchhiker is a documentary that is much more interested in myth-making than the incident that should be investigated, as well as the person people would like to know more about. It is way too superficial of a documentary portrait as it does not tell us enough about who this man really is, and also way too superficial of a true crime documentary to properly enlighten us on whether or not his claims about self-defense hold any weight whatsoever. Although it may be an interesting watch for those of us who remember the viral video, it doesn’t do the most significant incident of his life justice and it fails as a documentary about this person. Ultimately, that is because it is more interested in his stardom and how the internet might have again glorified someone who possibly shouldn’t have been. It is an incredible rise-and-fall story that you have to see to believe, but the documentary itself certainly is not as good or deep as the story it contains.

5.5 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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