Just three weeks ago, Operation Odessa—a Showtime documentary about a Russian mobster named Tarzan who tried to buy a Russian submarine on behalf of the Colombian drug cartels—seemed like a lock for craziest non-fiction film of the year. And yet with the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, there’s already a new challenger for that coveted title.
Directed by Theo Love with the sort of tongue-in-cheek incredulity befitting its out-there subject, White Tide is another entry in the burgeoning collection of documentary sagas about insane people doing insanely illegal things because of their insane greed. Dubbed “A Documentary Treasure Hunt,” Love’s feature is designed to make you laugh with astonishment at the lengths some will go to satisfy their fundamental impulses, and the dimness with which they often carry out those schemes. It’s a brazen tall tale that admits, “We can’t confirm many details of this story”—and then proceeds to recount said details with glee, because factual veracity is ultimately less important here than the sheer gonzo nuttiness compelling these individuals forward toward their bonkers goals.
White Tide sets its tone from the outset, with a rehearsed introductory shot of Andy—a disheveled and zonked-out young man in sunglasses, jeans, an open-buttoned white shirt and a straw Panama hat—walking through a tattoo parlor. Arriving at the camera, he asks the question that looms over these proceedings: “If you knew where two million dollars was buried in the ground, would you dig the shit up?” Then, after a dramatic pause, he answers that query himself, admitting, “Fuck yeah I would. I did it one time.” It’s a boast that’s as cartoonish as it is staged, and thus in keeping with the ensuing action, which is relayed via both traditional interviews and dramatic recreations of incidents that star the real-life men and women who lived them. Moreover, it’s a cocky assertion that’s somewhat misleading, since as it turns out, Andy was merely a supporting player in this endeavor—a goofy drug addict who stumbled into this plot courtesy of its real mastermind.
That would be Rodney Hyden, an overweight, middle-aged resident of Archer, Florida, which is described by his friend Russell as “not the end of the world, but we can see it from here.” By the middle of the last decade, Rodney was a budding construction mogul, with contracts rolling in and an expansive new three-car home purchased for his wife Jamie and daughter Emily. Everything was looking up—until the financial crisis of 2008 sent their fortunes plummeting through the floor (to the tune of a $1 million bank debt), and their lap-of-luxury lifestyle was replaced by an eight-year residence in a doublewide trailer. It was a drastic turn of events for the Hydens, and one that wasn’t acceptable to Jamie, who tearfully admits that she outright told her husband she wasn’t content with their new position at the bottom of the societal ladder.
Faced with such pressures, Rodney decided to jumpstart his fading American Dream via “the most fascinating story I’d ever heard in my life.” Archer’s resident barefooted hippie Julian used to regale locals with an outlandish yarn about his discovery—15 (or was it 20?) years ago—of a giant bag of cocaine just floating in the ocean off the coast of Culebra, Puerto Rico. Not knowing what to do with this bounty, which contained upwards of 70 pounds of the drugs, Julian kept hiding it in different locations, until finally he settled on a spot and stashed it in the ground. Shortly thereafter, he moved back to Archer, and an honest-to-goodness buried-treasure fable was born.
In Julian’s well-worn anecdote, Rodney saw a way out of his dire circumstances. Thanks to his habit of aiding strays in need, Rodney had befriended shaggy ne’er-do-well Andy, and that relationship, in turn, led him to Dee, aka “The Cuban,” a gangster who was more than willing to help Rodney find Julian’s cocaine, bring it back to the States, and then distribute it for him—a criminal enterprise for which the genial Rodney had no aptitude or connections. Appearing on camera with his face obscured by a bandana featuring a skull, Dee immediately comes across as an untrustworthy sort of fellow. But for Rodney, he was his ticket back to the big time, and before long, he was using Dee to get to Carlos, a narcotics bigwig who had the real wherewithal to pull off this operation—and who won Rodney over by reminding him of Al Pacino’s Scarface protagonist Tony Montana.
White Tide’s mix of non-fiction and fiction techniques—which also include recurring camera tricks that lend it some additional stylishness—is a harmonious fit for this narrative, which is dubious at various points, and yet essentially believable, simply by virtue of its you-couldn’t-make-this-up daffiness.
As a portrait of average Americans getting in over their heads due to a combination of opportunity, ambition and unchecked ego, it taps into the economic desperation of its (and our current) era, albeit in an exaggerated manner that’s both funny and pitiful. Rodney is a man who’s wholly relatable—who wouldn’t want to climb back to the top, after having fallen so low?—and still astonishing in his foolishness. Wiping crumbs off his shirt while relating his exploits, and grinning madly as he flips off passing motorists, he’s like a Coen Bros protagonist come to full-bodied life; an everyman who thought so highly of himself that he forgot about (or ignored) that age-old maxim regarding honor and thieves.
If his memory on that topic was initially faulty, it was jogged soon enough by the conduct of his unsavory cohorts, making Rodney a case study in the predictable trouble that comes from overstepping one’s boundaries. There’s no moralizing to be found in White Tide, however, as director Love revels in Rodney’s misbehavior with unbridled, amused relish. Though one often clamors for more in-depth treatment of this material—such as Rodney’s relationship with his daughter Emily, here seen in darkly-lit school-gymnasium sequences populated by marching-band drummers—that enthusiasm ably carries the film through to its preordained finale, as well as a coda that’s apt to inspire audiences to launch their GPS apps, pick up their shovels, and embark on their own treasure-hunting adventures.