Presiding over Arizona’s largest county since 1992, Joe Arpaio has been called “the P.T. Barnum of sheriffs” by Larry King — a fairly neutral statement compared with the fulminations laid at his doorstep by innumerable more fervent admirers and detractors. Fancying himself an inheritor of the old white-cowboy-hatted Wild West tradition (or rather its mythos), he’s greatly pleased many conservatives with his “tough on crime” theatrics while appalling others on numerous grounds. Randy Murray’s “The Joe Show” provides an equally entertaining and infuriating overview of a very American self-made phenomenon whose means of enforcing the law often seem to trample upon it. This vivid warts-and-all portrait has good potential to attract niche home-turf theatrical distrib, and broadcast sales in other select territories.

Pic is structured so that its subject’s publicity-hungry deeds at first appear pandering but fairly harmless — like when he parades shackled jail inmates in nothing but pink boxers before the press, or cuts corners by cheapskating their daily diet. But as the film goes on, the actions revealed grow more disturbing. Arpaio’s high-profile programs allegedly targeting illegal immigrants are instead accused of “literally terrorizing … anyone who looks Mexican,” getting him dubbed “the most notorious racial profiler in America.”

Worse, that emphasis required that funds and staff be shifted from other departments — particularly the Sex Crimes Unit, it seems. The most wrenching scenes here show women who had been raped talking about how their trauma was compounded by the eventual discovery that the police had simply dropped their cases without investigation, letting the perps go scot-free. Prisoners in county lockup (including the mentally disabled) have suffered preventable deaths under Arpaio’s regime, some ignored for hours despite obvious medical distress, others held in stress positions until they asphyxiated.

These and other incidents resulted in court-decreed settlements of millions in taxpayer dollars, canceling out the sheriff’s stance as a fiscal conservative. But Arpaio seems disturbingly unconcerned about any and all legal, ethical and moral lapses. He established an Anti-Corruption Unit, but its real purpose appeared to be to harass and/or remove any local government employees who criticized his policies. While such red-blooded patriots as Ted Nugent and Steven Seagal are seen here singing his praises, ever-escalating controversies and blunders have gradually eroded his once-sky-high local popularity. Pic achieves some suspense in its last reel by focusing on the 2012 race, in which he barely held onto his office against Democrat challenger Paul Penzone.

The now 81-year-old Arpaio may occasionally rail against “vicious media out to destroy me,” but he still thinks any publicity is good publicity, so long as “they spell my name right.” Blinded by the glare of his own celebrity, he seems to view the niceties of the law (or offending certain sectors of the public) as inconveniences barely worth notice. His perpetually perky, perfect-looking media director Lisa Allen, a former local TV newscaster, is given nearly as much screentime. Ultimately she seems the more loathsome of the two: Denying or glossing over his more egregious actions, she has no excuse for enabling his abuse of authority save crass careerism.

Himself a Phoenix-based broadcast journo, Murray deploys a variety of colorful tactics — including plentiful graphics and split-screen effects — to encompass his subject’s larger-than-life personality and rocky history in office. This fast-paced, polished effort errs only in bookending sequences where Arpaio was reluctantly persuaded to caterwaul a karaoke “My Way.” Besides being a cheap shot, such forced self-caricature is hardly necessary, as this rootin’ tootin’ cowboy requires no help providing enough rope with which to hang himself.

Film Review: ‘The Joe Show’

Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (World Showcase), April 26, 2012. Running time:<strong> 101 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) An ID Films presentation of a Randy Murray Prods. production. Produced by Ron J. Friedman, Andy Nelson, Andrew James Benson. Executive producers, Randy Murray, Theresa Murray, Ron Simon.
  • Crew: Directed by Randy Murray. Camera (color, HD), Howie Meyer, Adam Wheeler, Chris Barron; editors, David Staples, Misty Walter; music, Matt Cornwell; art director, Jenny Mason; sound designer, Abbott Miller; visual effects supervisor, Carlos Weaver.
  • With: Joe Arpaio, Lisa Allen, Larry King, Hugh Downs, Dan Ariely, Noam Chomsky, Steven Seagal, Ted Nugent, George Gascon, Dan Ariely.
  • Music By: