Directed by: Theo Love
Starring: Bo Butterworth, Bri Bryant, Andy Culpepper
Genre: Documentary, Crime, Thriller, Drama
Release Date: 10 April, 2019
Running Time: 83 Minutes
The best Netflix documentary since Fyre; like Breaking Bad with idiots
If you knew where a bag worth $2 million was buried, would you go looking for it? That’s the moral dilemma that the new Netflix documentary, The Legend of Cocaine Island, throws at you, while it tells the story of the one man who actually did.
It is a film best experienced without having any prior knowledge of the story whatsoever; don’t watch the trailer, don’t read the Wikipedia page, nothing. Experience it as you’re meant to – through the recollections of some of the most unreliable characters you’re likely to find outside of an Ocean’s movie.
A desperate man goes on a buried treasure hunt for $2 million worth of cocaine.
It is a story that involves a low-rent street hustler nicknamed the Cuban, a formidable drug kingpin called Carlos, and an uncle named Rodney. Through some miracle – a once in a lifetime event, as Rodney likes to describe it – they come together, united by tale spun by a hippie who claims to have hidden $2 million worth of cocaine on a remote Puerto Rican island.
The Great Recession has just hit, and the formerly wealthy Rodney – a middle aged Florida contractor – has lost his 3600 square foot mansion and his pride. He’s always had a habit of opening his doors to underprivileged folks, offering them shelter in exchange of odd jobs. This coupled with his unflappable optimism and (some would say) dubious sense of loyalty, has put him in contact with several shady people. One of them tells him the story of the bag of cocaine, and how it remains buried, almost two decades after if was first discovered, on a beach thousands of miles away.
Rodney is a strange man, and a terrific subject for a documentary such as this. As the Cuban says in one scene: the recession hit everyone, but how many people do you know who decided to go on a treasure hunt?
Nothing about his personality screams ‘criminal’ – he is tragically overweight, almost incapable of physical labour, and appears to survive on chewing tobacco or something. He seems to have based whatever knowledge he has of drug smuggling on the movies he has seen. In one particularly hilarious tangent, Rodney pauses his story and gleefully launches into a Scarface impression. Displeased by his first attempt, he gives himself a couple more takes. “Say hello to my little friend,” he says, clearly unaware of his Florida accent (but don’t tell him that).
The Legend of Cocaine Island employs the rather unexpected strategy of recreating scenes with the real Rodney – we see him hatching schemes, flying rickety planes, and even digging for the buried treasure. I’d imagine he was chuffed at the idea of playing himself in a movie, and it shows in the childlike enthusiasm of his ‘performance’. But at no point does director Theo Love appear to judge him. This doesn’t, however, stop him from tapping into the inherent ridiculousness of this story.
He gives the film an almost satirical edge, and similar to the excellent documentary The Queen of Versailles, seems to have struck the sweet spot, tonally, in capturing the tragicomic nature of the Great Recession. The American Dream used to be emblematic of hard work, of providing for one’s children a life better than one’s own, and of an optimism – but all this seems completely out of place in a post-recession world, where the illusion of having been screwed over has embedded within people a certain entitlement.
The Legend of Cocaine Island is a consistently well-made movie, breathtakingly shot and wonderfully scored, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Love lands himself a big studio gig after this – a la Bart Layton, who directed the similarly devious The Impostor.
In spite of its clickbaity title and distractingly over-stylised visuals, The Legend of Cocaine Island has interesting things to say about greed and corruption in the context of the modern world. But perhaps the most accurate description of this incredible story comes from the film itself, when an unlikely man says towards the end, ‘it’s like Walter Mitty meets Breaking Bad’.