In 2019, Norwegian newspaper VG published an article titled “The Tinder Swindler,” which sent shockwaves through the general public on par with The Atlantic’s “The Truth About Dentistry,” or the New York Times’ “Who is the Bad Art Friend?” The article follows a man named Shimon Hayut who spent years of his life posing as Simon Leviev, the heir to a behemoth Israeli diamond fortune. He adopted this persona to court women on Tinder and, once he has earned their trust, to trick them into loaning him hundreds of thousands of dollars—money he would then use to woo his next victim. As is the case with most popular IP, “The Tinder Swindler” was picked up for adaptation at lightning speed, and developed into a documentary by the masterminds behind Netflix’s Don’t Fuck with Cats, the deep-dive miniseries into the stranger-than-fiction story of the rise-and-fall of a porn-star-turned-cat-torturer-and-maybe-cannibal. Directed by Felicity Morris, The Tinder Swindler is not dissimilar to Don’t Fuck with Cats in that it is delightfully high-concept, bringing with it a similar frenetic energy and playful teasing out of twists.
But The Tinder Swindler inherently has one obstacle to overcome that Cats didn’t: It has big shoes to fill. The article it is based on is exceptional and engrossing. Hayut is a mastermind criminal, and his story is true crime at its best. The source piece defies conventional reporting standards, tacking on WhatsApp screen recordings, iPhone videos of private jet rides, and voice messages—almost like a mini documentary in its own right. How do you make a good documentary out of source material that already seems to have nailed it?
That’s a big question, and it’s one that The Tinder Swindler might just have the answer for. The film starts with an interview with a Norwegian woman named Cecilie, who is one of the victims that reported Hayut for fraud. She’s effortlessly likable: She explains how Beauty and the Beast shaped her romantic expectations as a kid and is self-deprecating about her failed attempts to find love on Tinder. Morris tells the story of Hayut’s crimes and deception from the perspective of three of his victims, transforming the unraveling of an epic crime (which is what the article covers) to what the story really is: Emotional warfare. The Tinder Swindler doesn’t attempt to follow the strict reporting edge of the article. To strengthen the sentimental angle, Morris does all of this without opening up the film to the perspective of outsiders, or adding in more than a couple of objective news clippings. Documentary lends itself well to evoking empathy and emotionality, and this Morris’ directorial debut leans into that notion.
A story like this is best served with a narrow focus and strong emotional edge. It is, after all, a story about emotional manipulation—something which, one of Hayut’s victims explains, is almost more damaging than being conned out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. By juxtaposing multimedia—including clips from the girls’ romantic getaways with Hayut, voice messages where he rambles convincingly about how much he loves them, and screencaps of texts where he frantically explains that he is in danger—with his victims’ testimonies about their emotional states at the time, the doc suddenly puts us in a position where we can imagine this happening to us. Amidst The Tinder Swindler’s extensive investigation into dating fraud and its emotional reverberations, the film is not at all didactic, nor is it condescending toward people who look for love online. As Cecilie points out: None of what happened was Tinder’s fault.
More than anything The Tinder Swindler has its finger on the pulse of what viewers want in a true crime documentary. For the past decade or so, Netflix’s true crime section has been astonishingly prolific, with the powers-that-be always in search of the next Making a Murderer or Tiger King. Often, this has resulted in over-long, uninteresting rehashings of only semi-interesting stories, or, god forbid, Tiger King 2. But The Tinder Swindler is an exception to this rule, and suggests a tentatively promising future for the streaming service’s docu-crime section. At just under two hours, it doesn’t drag on longer than it needs to. It is short, snappy and succinct. It also effortlessly fits in everything we look for in a doc like this: A retelling of the crime and the investigation (the latter being, in this case, even more interesting than the former), non-distracting reenactments and an engaging tone, which Swindler accomplishes by whipping around the globe to exotic locations—all paired with a lively soundtrack. When Don’t Fuck with Cats came out, I remember thinking that it had “cult classic” written all over it. The same goes for The Tinder Swindler, this time in big, bold letters.
Director: Felicity Morris
Release Date: February 2, 2022 (Netflix)
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.