United States-Mexico border politics are such a minefield at present, you have to marvel at the chutzpah — or simple obliviousness — it takes to make something like “Coyote Lake,” which superficially deploys those issues for the purposes of irrelevant, implausible melodrama. After directing several shorts (and years of work as a production assistant on shows such as “The Mindy Project” and “American Crime Story”), Sara Seligman makes her feature debut with a sluggish mix of thriller and drama that lacks the suspense required in one department and the depth needed on the other. Too flat-footedly earnest even to provide inadvertent bad-movie fun, it opens on five theatrical screens (two in Texas) simultaneous with On Demand launch this Friday. Enthusiasm will be scant.
We first meet teenaged Ester (“Riverdale’s” Camila Mendes) and her much-older mother Teresa (Adriana Barraza) as they’re sharing a seemingly innocuous dinner in their isolated farmhouse with an overnight room-renter (Charlie Weber, third-billed for a very brief part). But they’ve slipped a mickey into his drink, and once he’s out, they riffle through his possessions to find much presumably-illicit cash. Then it’s off to a nearby lake’s watery depths for their still-unconscious “guest,” with a cement block for company.
The duo justify murder by figuring that, as a coyote preying upon the needy, their victim is a “bad person.” They appear to have similarly lured and disposed of many such allegedly bad hombres — though why coyotes would be seeking B&B-type accommodations is just one among many instances of fuzzy logic here.
In any case, Teresa is hardly a crusader for immigrant rights, despite being a bilingual Latina. When some actual undocumented border-crossers turn up fatigued and hungry, willing to work for temporary shelter, she shoos them off without offering so much as a glass of water. She also seems creepily over-protective of Ester, to the point of home-schooling, making the girl dress in “boy clothes,” and refusing to let her learn Spanish so she can’t communicate with most of their guests. (Though the weakness of Oscar-nominated “Babel” star Barraza’s otherwise effective performance is that her English is so stilted here, she seems sometimes to be reading her lines phonetically.) The only other person in their daily lives is hick hired-hand Dirk (Neil Sandilands), who’s deaf and dumb.
The women have just dosed another soon-to-be-swimming-with-the-fishes patron when two inconvenient additional visitors drive up. Refusing to be rebuffed, young James Franco-looking Paco (Andres Velez) waves a gun around, insisting they care for his older associate Ignacio (Manny Perez), who’s been leg-shot in probable drug-cartel violence. Given no choice, the residents take in these uninvited strangers, which immediately gets messier when the intended victim they haven’t had time to drown regains consciousness.
So far, “Coyote Lake” has been unpromising, but one still hopes it has tricks up its sleeve. Alas, instead it goes from humorless Tex-Mex “Arsenic and Old Lace” to a junior-division “The Rainmaker,” with socially deprived Ester warming to Paco’s courtship as drought-shriveled Katherine Hepburn once flowered under the waterings of travelin’ man Burt Lancaster. Stuck here while Ignacio recovers, he urges her to assert herself, not be bullied by grammy, and embrace prettiness. (Their make-out scene is preceded by the freeing of tightly bound teenage breasts.) Given the one-dimensional character writing and pedestrian direction, this shift only makes the film more turgid, with an eventual return to violent conflict hokey and ridiculous rather than revivifying.
It’s hard to suss just what Seligman or co-writer Thomas Bond had in mind here. They incorporate hot-button trafficking issues into the contrived plot, then refuse to take any tangible stance on them. They treat a suspense premise flaccidly, and their character psychology is too thin for the film to be taken seriously as drama.
The performances are competent yet undone by the script, just as the professional assembly elements are left stranded by a lack of any deliberate style or guiding vision. While the movie doesn’t work, it isn’t idiosyncratic enough even to hold attention as a misfired oddity. Like its heroine in the final image (a rare drone’s-eye attempt at a visual flourish), it just lays there blinking at us, seemingly satisfied with its accomplishment—though it’s anyone’s guess just what that’s supposed to be.