The Legend of Cocaine Island review – muddled Netflix documentary

A family man attempts to find a $2m stash of drugs in an intermittently interesting yet mostly disappointing film

Early in The Legend of Cocaine Island, an older man, one who whiles long Florida evenings around a campfire with his neighbors, poses a question. You know the difference between a northern and a southern fairytale? A northern one, he says, starts with: “Once upon a time.” A southern one starts with: “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this shit.”

The documentary, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca film festival as White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, dares you to doubt the story of Rodney Hyden, a small businessman turned drug hunter whose campfire buddy Julian has long told, once the wine kicks in, of a time 15 years ago when he stumbled upon and buried a stash of cocaine in Puerto Rico. Hyden, a construction supervisor in north Florida, laughed off the story for years; he had fulfilled the American dream – two houses, a pool, a business – until the recession kicked the proud family man from tony suburb to a double-wide on a dirt road. As his two-year plan becomes a three-year one, then four, the specter of a phantom million dollars in the sand morphed into a tantalizing “opportunity of a lifetime”. A buyer, a pilot and a plan fall into place, and soon Hyden is following a Google printout treasure map in the Caribbean. (Spoiler: he doesn’t get away with it, as detailed in the final third of the film and, more extensively, in Daniel Riley’s 2017 story for GQ.)

Cocaine Island, produced and directed by Theo Love, peels back the layers on this headline bait story, and as the facts emerge, Hyden’s transformation – a judge later describes him as “Walter Mitty meets Breaking Bad” – seems less “Florida dad plans to steal cocaine from paradise island” and more, well, a product of circumstances. We hear from Hyden’s wife and youngest daughter, who argue for his good, if desperate and naive, intentions. A colorful cast of associates encourage Hyden to find the treasure. And, of course, there’s the allure of adventure, the chance to ditch the status quo and the double-wide for a moment of Hollywood-valorized glory. Describing a meeting with the drug dealer Carlos – a man who went five tequila shots to his one margarita – Hyden chews through a scene of Scarface (and, with the camera close, a popcorn) with child-like glee. “Say hello to my little friend,” he repeats several times, each slightly more deranged, more accented, until he mocks a machine gun.

Hyden cracks himself up, and that laughter – that candid self-deprecating, very American dad riff – stands out in a documentary chock full of provocative shots and dramatic re-enactments. On one level, Hyden’s reverence for that line speaks to a pop cultural fascination with drug deals and their savvy kingpins, a point overshadowed by Hyden’s knowingly bad Pacino impression. Likewise, the film introduces elements of an iconic post-recession American story – details that add texture or poke at our assumptions of those who paid a hefty price, in pride and on paper, for the housing market’s implosion – but that story gets muddled by an array of distracting or, at best, divisive editing choices.

For one, hammy, winking re-enactments comprise a solid half, if not more, of the film, frequently pushing it toward the realm of dramedy, not always pleasantly. Hyden stars as himself as he re-bumbles through tequila-soaked meetings, late-night Google searches and wobbly plane landings – scenes that are more Drunk History, with outside dialogue lip-synced in scene, than cinéma vérité, to the point where it seems appropriate to ask, was this awkward to film? Love favors close-up shots on small tells – a tin of chewing tobacco, a pair of car keys, the gator head, frozen in mid-snarl, on Hyden’s desk – emphasized with slow-mos or the exaggerated bubbling of a bong. He focuses especially on the physicality of the harebrained scheme, especially, and distractingly, towards its baser elements; I’m not sure multiple recreations of Andy’s food poisoning or the slow wringing of Hyden’s sweat towel add to the story, but they’re certainly memorable shots that I’m fine never seeing again.

Rodney Hyden, a small businessman turned attempted drug runner, stands by his farm in Archer, Florida.
Rodney Hyden, a small businessman turned attempted drug runner, stands by his farm in Archer, Florida. Photograph: Photo Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

Ironically, for all the efforts the documentary puts into recreating Hyden’s pursuit of the cocaine – attempts that are imaginative, if not often effective – the most interesting parts have little to do with drugs. It’s Hyden’s steadfast commitment to the idea that just work translates into just rewards, his wife’s evident pride at moving into the more “prestigious” Gainesville neighborhood and tears when that dream becomes elusive again. Their daughter’s description of how her father takes “strays” like Andy Culpepper, who accompanied Hyden to Puerto Rico, under his wing, partly to keep a semblance of feeling young. How law enforcement officers, faces shadowed out, justify investing so much time and equipment into chasing a small, generally clueless fish.

“If you knew that $2m was buried in the ground, would you dig the shit up? Fuck yeah I would, I did it one time,” Culpepper says in the film’s first frames. It’s a bold statement of purpose, one The Legend of Cocaine Island struggles to keep throughout its 85-minute runtime. In fact, Culpepper didn’t dig up the shit; the digging was too strenuous, and though the film gestures at larger commentary on greed, America’s valorization of big pools and bigger homes, and the pressure of upward mobility, it hews firmly to Hyden’s perspective. Riley’s GQ story casts a wider lens, and in less time; sometimes, a good legend is all the embellishment you need.

  • The Legend of Cocaine Island is available on Netflix on 29 March


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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