“Swamp Lion” is an overly patient, not-quite-meandering melodrama about a Texas trucker who gets mixed up in smuggling to try and pay for his son’s cancer treatment. This indie film, starring Michael Ray Escamilla, has touching moments and a seriously tense third act that bely its sleepy opening scenes.
It’s a decent showcase for the Texan Escamilla, who was in “A Night in Old Mexico” and TV’s “Snowfall” and “The Big C.” It’s also a bittersweet one, as he died last year, shortly after finishing this and a couple of other projects.
In an opening that plays as a straight-up prologue, we meet Jimmy and his younger brother Stan (Luis Bordonada) after a night where alcohol was consumed and somehow, Jimmy ended up with a fat lip. His sometime girlfriend Bre (Bre Blair) shows up, pulls him aside, and announces she’s pregnant.
“We’ve gotta change,” she tells him. “I’m gonna take care of you,” he promises. The movie’s about how the first assertion might not come true, but perhaps the second one could.
Because years later, he’s keeping them afloat with a truck driving gig and she’s got a waitress job or some such.
But nothing that they have coming in pays for enough insurance to cover the brain tumor that’s revealed when their tweenage son (Jack Elliot Ybarra) has a seizure in the middle of a game of catch. “Experimental” treatment in Boston costs $250,000. They aren’t related to anyone nor do they know anyone who can round up that much cash. After a bout of panic and heated arguments with relatives, trucker Jimmy talks to the sketchy brother Bre doesn’t let come around any more.
“I know some people,” Stan says. “They’re not nice people.”
Danish writer-director Torben Bech (“Nuummioq”) wanders through plenty of early scenes that help set up the rhythms of the family and the slow pace of the picture, but could probably stand some trimming. He compensates for that dawdling by barely sketching in the details of this tense across-the-border smuggling operation.
The logistics of the crime, like a long argument scene with Bre’s parents, isn’t essential to understanding the story or making it work.
Suffice it to say that Jimmy makes dirty money, payments are made for the treatment, and he gets careless. And when it all starts to come undone, we — like the quiet, unhurried Jimmy — are jolted by what’s happening. The camera follows him at shoulder height as he springs into urgent action, not-quite-panicked, but in a hurry for the first time in the movie.
Escamilla gives Jimmy an unflappable air that almost nothing can shake, letting us underestimate him. Blair is the one allowed to get worked up, get loud and get mad. Whatever made Jimmy the way he is, her character’s back story is more fraught, and we get it.
“Swamp Lion” takes its title from a story Jimmy tells to his son each night, and the fairytale and its title convey little more than the fact that this father dotes on his son. It also captures the sleepy-time air the picture opens with and doesn’t lose until over an hour has passed.
Leaden pacing hampers the movie, but as Bech is attempting to cast some sort of spell over the proceedings, I get why he tried it. But there’s not enough here to justify this run-time. He’s got a tight 95 minute thriller buried in a 110 minute melodrama.
Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Michael Ray Escamilla, Bre Blair, Jack Elliot Ybarra and Luis Bordonada
Credits: Scripted and directed by Torben Bech. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:50