Early in White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, someone asks “What’s the difference between a Northern fairytale and a Southern fairytale? A Northern fairytale starts ‘Once upon a time…’. A Southern fairytale starts ‘You ain’t gonna believe this shit…’.”
Describing director Theo Love’s sophomore documentary White Tide:The Legend of Culebra, it becomes harder and harder to believe the story is fact and not fiction. It’s part crime drama, part comedy of errors, part conspiracy, and entirely unbelievable. The star of this adventure is Rodney Hyden, a Florida builder who fell on hard times when the recession hit. More than a million dollars in debt to the banks, Rodney moves from the cushy suburbs to the small town of Archer, Florida, where he hears a southern fairytale about his neighbor Julian, who, when he was living in Puerto Rico, buried more than two million dollars in the ground. The only problem, is that this money is in the form of 30 kilos of cocaine. You’d have to be crazy to try dig something like that up, right? Well, Rodney is that kind of crazy.
What Rodney is not, is a drug dealer. Thankfully, Rodney has a friend named Andy, a functioning drug addict who could have fallen out of the pages of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and he has a friend coke dealer friend named Dee, who has a friend named Carlos, who has a plane and can get things in and out of the country. Suddenly, Rodney’s insane idea doesn’t seem so insane anymore and I’ll stop there, because if that doesn’t have you hooked, I don’t know what will.
Rodney, Andy, and Dee provide the bulk of the interviews for the film and are all immensely entertaining to listen to. It’s clear Rodney has told this story once or twice and he’s honed it to a razor’s edge. Andy’s retelling of events might not be as silky smooth, but I would pay money to watch the uncut tapes of his interviews. Dee speaks through a bandana used to hide his face and protect his identity, but his retellings are critical and his perspective on the drug trade is insightful and accessible.
To be clear, this isn’t a talking heads documentary. White Tide is dripping with style and palpable energy. Love masterfully blends interviews, graphics, and recreations to keep the film kinetic and full of momentum. Recreations are usually a documentary’s weakest segments, but Love struck gold with Rodney Hyden, who plays himself in the recreated scenes. Now, Rodney’s never going to be confused for a Hollywood actor, but his presence gives the recreations a sense of authenticity and affords Love the flexibility to shoot the scenes like narrative film.
To say that a story like this tells itself, belies Theo Love’s accomplishment as a documentarian here. Love saw Rodney’s story for the adventure it was and shot it like one. It’s kinetic and energetic and surprisingly well balanced. It’s very easy to make exciting stories boring, but Love makes it look effortless, turning White Tide into a masterclass in capitalizing on dramatic potential.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
White Tide: The Legend of Culebra is a lot of things. It’s a fun adventure story, it’s a compelling crime drama, and It’s a sobering look at American optimism and naiveté told as an absurdist narcotic treasure hunt. Most importantly, it’s fun to watch. Theo Love has brought one of the most exciting films to this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and made what might be the most compulsively watchable documentary in years.