In the first few minutes of Coyote Lake, we see a seemingly mild-mannered, middle-aged Mexican woman and her polite teenage daughter serving dinner to a male houseguest who is somewhat coy about telling them what he does for a living. “I’m like a…tour guide,” the man says, with a sardonic smile. He’s actually a coyote, a human trafficker who exploits migrants desperate to get across the border. And after eating and drinking what his hosts serve him, he soon winds up unconscious. Later, the women drop his bound body in a nearby lake, apparently not caring that he isn’t necessarily already dead when they do so.
That opening scene would seem to indicate that the film will be an outlandish, gothic horror tale. But director Sara Seligman and her co-screenwriter Thomas Bond have something different in mind. There are thriller elements in Coyote Lake, to be sure, but they’re delivered in relatively understated fashion. Instead, the pic concentrates more on psychological drama, with the current real-life turmoil going on at the border giving it an emotionally charged resonance.
The two women run a makeshift boarding house out of their home located in a remote area near the Texas-Mexico border. The mother, Teresa (Adriana Barraza, Oscar nominated for Babel), goes about her murderous duties, sometimes with the assistance of her mute handyman (Neil Sandilands, The Americans), with total dispassion. She clearly has no compunction about the robbing and disposing of men she considers villains, although her absence of compassion for the people they’re exploiting is demonstrated when she rebuffs the entreaties for help from a desperate family who’ve been robbed by their coyote.
Barraza’s canny underplaying makes her homicidal character seem all the more chilling. You can imagine that under different circumstances, the blandly efficient Teresa might easily find employment at the Department of Homeland Security.
Teresa’s criminal accomplice, 17-year-old daughter Ester (Camila Mendes, The CW’s Riverdale), displays an equal lack of emotion, but when she runs after the family and offers them some food it becomes apparent that her humanity hasn’t been completely drummed out of her.
The central storyline is set in motion with the unexpected arrival of two drug-cartel gangsters. The younger man, Paco (Andres Velez), brandishes a gun and orders the two women to take care of his older cohort Ignacio (Manny Perez), who’s bleeding from a gunshot wound. The two men continue to hold Teresa and Ester hostage until Ignacio can recover. But things become more complicated when Ester finds herself responding to Paco’s romantic overtures, awakening herself for the first time to the possibility of personal happiness.
The coming-of-age theme doesn’t mesh entirely well with the more lurid elements, and Coyote Lake doesn’t quite achieve the narrative tension sufficient to lift it above the story’s slow spots. The film is carried along by the strength of Mendes’ emotionally complex, restrained performance that makes clear that Ester is as much victim as accomplice. The story’s climactic violent events, precipitated by Ignacio discovering a watch that once belonged to his missing cousin, culminate in an ending that is as ironic as it is bleak.
Production company: Van Johnson Company
Distributor: Cranked Up Films
Cast: Camila Mendes, Adriana Barraza, Charlie Weber, Neil Sandilands, Manny Perez, Andres Velez
Director: Sara Seligman
Screenwriters: Sara Seligman, Thomas Bond
Producers: Nikki Stier Justice, Van Johnson, Anne Clements, Ash Christian
Executive producer: Scott Donley
Director of photography: Matthias Schubert
Production designers: David Pink, Scott Colquitt
Costume designer: Ryan M. Smith
Editor: Eric F. Martin
Composer: Fabrizio Mancinelli
Casting directors: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy, Morgan Robbins, Rich Delia