2019, NR, 93 min. Directed by Sara Seligman. Starring Camila Mendes, Adriana Barraza, Neil Sandilands, Andres Velez, Manny Perez, Charlie Weber, Antonio López-Valero.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Aug. 2, 2019
Something is strangely off-kilter from the outset of this deft dramatic thriller set somewhere near the boundary between the United States and Mexico. The location is a veritable la zona roja, where the overlapping commerce of smuggling drugs and transporting people across the border has cheapened the value of life to a transaction measurable in pesos or dollars, or worse yet, to something expendable on any given day. In a rustic bed-and-breakfast remotely situated on the (presumably) American side of a never-glimpsed Rio Grande, controlling matriarch Teresa (Oscar nominee Barraza) and her sheltered teenage daughter Ester (Riverdale alumna Mendes) are hosting yet another mysterious male guest passing through the countryside, this one a self-described “tourist guide” who – like those before him – foolishly fails to appreciate the true nature of their hospitality. What happens next is unexpected, made all the more shocking by the manner in which the two smiling women matter-of-factly perform a ritual that ends in a moonlit rowboat atop the titular reservoir named after the two-legged predators who roam the area preying on human hope.
The exquisitely precise direction by Seligman (making an impressive debut here), the trim editing by Eric F. Martin, the gorgeous nighttime cinematography by Matthias Schubert – all contribute to an eerie otherworldliness in this beautifully executed opening sequence of Coyote Lake. As you witness it, you wonder: Is this a real place in a real time, or some metaphysical state of mind? The movie has barely begun, and you’re utterly intrigued.
Your attention remains rapt when a couple of desperate Mexican nationals on the lam (one has a bullet in his leg, a hazard of his trade) shatter the women’s secluded existence and hold them hostage, with the younger and more gentler of the two (Velez) awakening dormant feelings in the virginal Ester. This interloper, who offers her an escape route from a dead-end life, inevitably upsets the emotionally perverse dynamic between parent and child, with tragic consequences. Both Barraza and Mendes try to make sense of their characters’ oddly motivated relationship, but any intelligible explanation stays just out of reach as the true monster of the piece slowly emerges. Unfortunately, the devil is in the detail, which is not completely forthcoming here. While frustrating to not fully understand the growing psychological displacement between Teresa and Ester, Coyote Lake is hardly a shallow enterprise. Its still waters still run pleasurably deep.
For an interview with director Sara Seligman and star Camila Mendes, read "On the Shores of the Border," Aug. 2.