Many years ago, maybe 15, maybe 20, I dunno, a sack of cocaine bobbed along the shores of Culebra island. This hippie guy who never wore any shoes, name of Julian, saw it floating in the shallows. He waded out into the ocean, fetched the bag, hoped it would contain money, discovered it stuffed with white powder, and buried it in the dirt rather than alert the proper authorities. He couldn’t trust the Puerto Rican police. He had no idea what to do with it. Makes for a good story, but nothing more. Time marches on, and everyone who ever met Julian heard the tale of buried cocain treasure. The story gave folks a good laugh, but it was B.S., right?
The Legend of Cocaine Island opens with this other guy, by the name of Andy, staring down the barrel of a camera, wearing dark sunglasses and a cheap dime-store cowboy hat, asking his audience, “If you knew where $2 million was buried in the ground, would you dig the shit up?” He waits for a beat, stares off into the corner of the tattoo shop he’s propped inside, and answers his own question, “Fuck yeah, I would. And I did it one time.” An electric wild west score kicks off, and the opening credits roll on a wild, preposterous suburban gangster tale of economic desperation.
Fifty seconds into the doc and you’re hooked. You’re also questioning the heavy hand of director Theo Love (Little Hope Was Arson). He’s not interested in telling the same ol’ talking-heads true crime narrative. Love has grande cinematic aspirations, encouraging his subjects to partake in reenactments, placing their conversations within dioramas, and jamming his POV into places it shouldn’t be (inside refrigerators, swimming with the fishes). The Legend of Cocaine Island is a whale of a tale, and Love is not happy to simply let it unravel itself. He’s here to exaggerate, exacerbate, and celebrate. If you accept that influence, you’ll enjoy the ride. If you balk at his invasion, you’ll wall yourself from its entertainment value.
Andy is just one of several southern gentlemen eager to free himself from the hell of everyday living. He heard the fable of Julian’s cocaine from his construction contractor pal, Rodney. Or maybe it was his son. The details around these events are hazy, but Love encourages you to lean in on the maybes rather than get hung up on the definites. Upon learning of the cocaine’s existence, Andy pokes and prods Rodney until they’re both contemplating the buried treasure’s real-world value. A google search here, a few beers down the hatch, and a possibility of miraculous financial freedom seems possible.
Guys, you really should have watched more movies. Personally, I prescribe you five watches of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and 10 watches of A Simple Plan. Here’s the thing, though: Rodney is a bit of a Scarface nut himself. When Andy’s drug contact leads to another shiftier smuggler with access to a plane, Rodney starts imagining he’s traveling amongst the Tony Montanas of this world. To this day, the thought brings delight and a great wide smile to Rodney’s face. He’s practically cheering as he rattles off the most famous of Scarface lines, “Say hello to my little friend.” Over and over and over he goes, “Say hello to my little friend. Say hello to my little friend.” It’s hilarious until your mind wonders if Love is encouraging him off camera.
Love never fully breaks into the frame, but there are moments where he can be heard. There are the typical probing questions that he offers to speed the conversation along, but there are also obvious deleted inquiries in which he must have made a suggestion or offered an addition to steer his subject’s train of thought. At one time Andy also thanks him for an assist even though we actually never hear the assist. Whether Love is massaging, shaping, or bashing the doc into existence really doesn’t matter.
The Legend of Cocaine Island is a riot. There are no genuine characters. Everyone is pretending, and everyone is making it up as they go along. What little reality we grab from the events involving that buried sack of cocaine is compelling, and the liberties Love takes with the material only entices the audience as Julian’s tall tale must have done to those that fell under its spell. Traditionalists need not apply.