If you break down the premise of Sara Seligman’s feature film, Coyote Lake, you’re not too far from a fairy tale: a young woman named Ester (Riverdale‘s Camila Mendes) has grown up alienated from everything around her. She lives in a remote house her mother Teresa (Academy Award nominee Adriana Barraza) uses as a makeshift hotel for wandering and dangerous men who she poisons and steals from. When a young man awakens Ester to the life she could have, she’ll have to decide if she’s to stay in the isolating world her mother has created for her or whether she’s ready to strike out on her own. Layered over such a story is the brutal context of cartel violence. Not the kind you’re bound to see being stoked on cable news or on presidential rallies, but the more insidious one — the kind that permeates the lives of everyday Mexicans and Americans on the border who cannot escape it, who live with it, however begrudgingly, and who make do with what they have.

Minutes in, it’s clear that Coyote Lake is not your run-of-the-mill U.S.-Mexico border story. The title card that opens Seligman’s film shifts the focus, making those murders Teresa and Esther get away with be part of a larger context. “In Texas,” it reads, “there is a remote lake on the U.S.-Mexico border. Along its serene shores, hundreds of violent deaths and mysterious disappearances have occurred, believed to be at the hands of the cartels. Most of the murders remain unresolved.” Those words immediately immerse us in a world that’s not about “us” versus “them,” or about “bad hombres,” or even about border security. Instead, it’s about a harrowing reality where the specter of violence permeates every kind of interaction.

By the time Seligman establishes the first scene of her film, a meal between a self-described “tour guide” (aka a coyote) and the mother-daughter duo who are housing him for the night, their fraught conversation feels tense and riddled with subtext. You’re almost not as shocked as you should be when he falls unconscious, is tied up and eventually dropped (alive!) into the lake before his hostesses steal his money. The story of these two morally compromised women is tricky and thorny, echoing the climate of violence that surrounds them. It aims for the allegorical, but it is very much grounded in the reality that Seligman is so keen on depicting.

‘Coyote Lake’ still courtesy of the filmmakers

Borrowing a Western-like setup in a different kind of frontier, Coyote Lake takes place almost exclusively in Teresa’s motel. Amid another coyote offing, the two women find themselves held hostage by two armed young men. It’s no spoiler to note that such a standoff doesn’t end all too happily for anyone involved. But before the bloodied sequences that show Seligman is as unsparing a filmmaker as her screenplay demands her to be, the Mexican-born director creates a gritty landscape that feels neither exploitative nor reductive: when all your characters straddle the lines between Mexican and American, morally superior and morally bankrupt, tender and cruel, Spanish-speaking and English-speaking, it’s hard to draw conclusions that focus less on the individual and more on the system. In contrast with the vastness of the titular lake, the film’s claustrophobic setting ups the sense that all characters are trapped in a cycle they cannot escape.

Is killing and stealing from bad men admissible? Seligman has a way of making hypothetical moral quandaries feel more like rhetorical questions. The murky morals of all her characters feel earned. It’s a shame the film’s story never quite lives up to these fascinating intellectual conversations — not to mention the specificity about bilingual and bicultural life she explores in the role of Ester throughout, who’s called a pocha and a gringa and even has to defend her own identity against her romancing captor. Despite a stellar central performance by Barraza, who is as stoic and still and anger-riddled as the film itself, Coyote Lake‘s reliance on Mendes’ Ester ends up hampering the overall effect of the film. It’s hard to see Mendes as the tomboy Ester is supposed to be and harder still to follow her journey of self-discovery when every note of the performance falls so flat. She’s restrained almost to a fault, with little to hint at the complexity her character so clearly requires.

Overall, Coyote Lake is most interesting as a story that demands we examine the toll it takes to survive in a world that so freely traffics in death. Within Seligman’s slow, creeping long shots that aim to ramp up the tension, and her keen attention to small details (a spider’s web glistening with dew, the near poetic shots by the lake of drowning men in body bags) you get a sense of a filmmaker truly in control of the tone of her film, a bellwether, one hopes, of even more assured films to come.

Coyote Lake screened as part of the 2019 New York Latino Film Festival and is already available on VOD.