2007-12-14 17:57:35
Bahamas Int'l. Film Festival Movie Review: 'Coyote'
Coyote (B+)

Directed by Brian Petersen
Written by Brian Petersen, Brett Spackman
Starring Brian Peterson, Brett Spackman, Carley Adams

“Coyote” is intriguing and enthralling; a surprise independent success that delivers on plenty of the essential levels of filmmaking -- but not all of them.

Sophomore director/actor/co-screenwriter Brian Petersen radiates with talent both in front of the camera and behind it, sharing that finesse with fellow filmmaker Brett Spackman. They navigate their way through the lavish lives of suburban human smugglers with improvised humor and stylish cinematography, unfortunately focusing too much time on the look and not enough time on a structured storyline.

Don’t get me wrong -- this is definitely a film worth seeing and recommending to a friend or watching on a date, it’s marketable on multiple levels. It touches on a sensitive subject in a different light; an affluent look at the perks of smuggling illegal immigrants into America and the pitfalls that ensue when dealing with brutally ruthless Mexicans who do the same thing, cleverly coined as “coyotes”.

Amidst the nifty camera angles and “how’d-you-do-it” editing techniques (and believe me, this film’s laden with both of them), the core storyline seems slightly jaded and too convenient. Sure there’s conflict, arguments, violence and chase scenes but the build up to these rewarding sequences seem awkwardly unscripted and flat, exchanging necessary subtext for subtle humor and overly explanative patches of dialogue.

Here’s the basics: Steve (Brian Petersen) is a retired thirty-something with a gorgeous fiancée, Katie (Carley Adams), and a life that easily resembles a prolonged vacation. He plays golf in cargo shorts. He turns down potentially promising business ventures. He kisses his wife-to-be like he means it.

Steve’s longtime buddy, J (Brett Spackman), is a rotund vending machine operator that spends his afternoons stocking Cheetos in local middle schools and 7-11s, having never captured his dreams or fully pursued his ambitions.

When one of J’s Mexican friends, Pablo (Genesis Curiel), is subsequently deported, Steve is quick to go along with the idea of smuggling him back into the United States with little hesitation and barely a second-thought. Wait. The same guy who’s retired, engaged and exuberantly happy decides to pursue “immigrant piggy-backing” as a hobby?

Of course he’s willing to help out a friend-of-a-friend but would he have gotten into the position to retire early if his backstory were filled with ill-fated misadventures? And if he decided to get into human smuggling just for fun -- just for kicks -- then his mundane characteristics needed to be established previously. Steve may be trying to do the right thing but, quoting the film’s tagline, there’s a line you cross. If he had a more definite motivation to partake in the illegal operation, it would make more sense when he declines advances from his gorgeous fiancée to instead stuff immigrants (mostly men with thick mustaches and unfitted hats) into a wooden compartment in the back of his truck.

During the post-screening Q&A with Petersen and Spackman, the latter explained how the plot was conceived, derived from a true story about how a housekeeper and her children were able to re-enter America following deportation, simply by dressing the kids up like Americans while she hid beneath blankets in the backseat of a friend’s car.

The same story is relayed in the movie by Speckman’s character and is used as the catalyst of Steve and J’s criminal deeds, a major turning point that comes about too casually and with little believability. After figuring that they can make a couple thousands dollars bringing Mexicans into America, Steve and J begin a lucrative operation as suburban smugglers, offering immigrant-hopefuls three beneficial “travel packages” that guarantee to help refugees get into el Estados Unidos to live with forgotten family members and to find a decent job.

When morality is questioned, Steve eloquently explains to Katie, “I know it’s a felony but we’re not doing anything wrong”, expressing his perception of his new “job”, an occupation that becomes surprisingly profitable and, well, kind of cool.

When Steve and J are discussing various ways to smuggle immigrants throughout different parts of the border, their conversation is overly informative and sounds more like a Border Patrol brochure than two friends talking. The lampshade effect comes into play when Steve asks J how he learned so much about human smuggling.

“Google,” he answers, almost proudly.

When driving across the border becomes obsolete, Steve becomes a cowboy hat-wearing, gum-smacking minuteman assigned to overlook the border while reclining in a lounge chair, armed with a pump-action shotgun and a pair of tinted Aviators. Minutemen, described by Steve as “old dudes out there with guns, loving America”, are responsible for contacting Border Patrol when they notice illegal immigrants migrating into America. Steve, however, uses his post as a meeting point for J, who emerges from the desert with groups of Mexicans on a daily basis in order to keep their operation running.

Things get heated when J is playfully ambushed by Sr. Juarez (Oswaldo Hernandez), a top-ranking member of the Juarez Cartel and the textbook definition of a “coyote”. Throughout Mexico, Juarez and other coyotes are notorious for charging to deliver a better life in America before abandoning the unsuspecting refugees in the sweltering terrain with nothing more than what they already had -- minus a few hundred pesos.

“You don’t cause problems, I won’t cause problems,” Juarez warns as he reassuringly pats J on the back.

As the story begins to unravel, so do the characters, along with their integrity. Many of them don’t emotionally or physically bond until the end of the film, until their relationships are on the verge of being strained or falling apart. Steve and J lack sentimental moments of camaraderie that would further develop their friendship until the unsuspected end, a shocking conclusion that caused the entire theatre to gasp and wince simultaneously.

Brian Peterson and Brett Spackman, both in attendance at this year’s 4th Annual Bahamas International Film Festival, are equally bright stars rising in the always expanding independent film world. In my opinion, Peterson is a better director than a lead actor although by the end of this film that statement can be heavily disputed. Spackman dazzles as a supporting character actor and as the editor of the film, a valuable asset to any production he’s involved in. Kudos to cinematographer Robb Hunt for turning Petersen and Speckman’s vision into titillating eye candy and keep watching lead actress Carley Adams as her career blossoms. She delivers a star-making performance in Coyote that seamlessly fuses her roseate beauty with gravitas talent as she supports Steve through his erroneous actions and reckless decisions.

Brian Petersen and Brett Spackman both admit that they’re still working on the film, having whittled down the running time from over two hours to an exhilarating 94 minutes. During the post-screening Q&A, Petersen also noted that “great films are never finished…they’re just abandoned.”

Let’s just hope Brian Petersen doesn’t give up on this film. Because to abandon this project without letting it reach its full potential would make him a cinematic coyote… right?

By ML Cromwell
Film Critic
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