'La Barracuda': Film Review | SXSW 2017

LA BARRACUDA - still 1- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of SXSW Film Festival
An involving slow-burn thriller that takes its time before showing its teeth.

Allison Tolman and Sophie Reid play half sisters who connect via their late country musician father in this suspenseful ballad about shared bloodlines and the simmering rage of exclusion.

There were juicier performances to savor, but Allison Tolman was the quiet revelation in season one of FX's Fargo, her grounded realness and humanity providing an anchor for all the destabilizing weirdness and startling violence in her character's orbit — just as Frances McDormand had in the Coen brothers' movie. Tolman serves a similar function to pleasing effect in La Barracuda, playing the daughter of a dead country musician, whose safe, stable existence in Austin, Texas, gets ruptured when the half sister she's never met drifts into her life with unclear intent.

Co-directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund (Now, Forager), working from Cortlund's script, keep us guessing not only about the intentions of Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), but also about the path of their absorbing, mostly low-key thriller, which builds atmosphere, psychological texture, an ingrained sense of place and a needling undercurrent of dread. Those qualities, plus a flavorful infusion of country, bluegrass and folk tunes, should help find an audience for this character-driven story about the ragged ties of family. (The movie features a number of noteworthy Lone Star State musicians, including Colin Gilmore, Butch Hancock, Bob Livingston, Richard Bowden and The Mastersons.)

While her name evokes Mexico, with a hint of outlaw poetry one might imagine appealing to a Texan country singer, Sinaloa actually comes from Brighton, England. Her father, Wayne Klein, would stop to visit the girl and her mother when he and his band were on tour. But that intermittent contact ended with no explanation years before his death.

Intriguing establishing shots draw us in as the brooding young woman hitchhikes alone through poor rural towns and flatlands before slipping into the city, where she heads to the cemetery to light incense and pour whiskey on Wayne's grave. Sinaloa turns up unannounced on the doorstep of Merle (Tolman) and her fiancé Raul (Luis Bordonada), introducing herself as Merle's sister, a singer-songwriter, but keeping it casual, telling them she'll let them know if she lands a music gig in town.

Merle is wary but Raul is more open and welcoming, inviting the stranger to stay and then insisting on taking her along when they go to the family ranch in Fredericksburg for their engagement party. Sinaloa claims to have lost her guitar in a Louisiana mugging, so Merle lets her play a beat-up old acoustic that belonged to their dad, with a barracuda etched into its soundboard.

Cool and intense, with a tight set to her jaw that suggests pent-up resentment, Sinaloa doesn't wait to be introduced before springing herself on Merle's mother Patricia (JoBeth Williams, an acerbic treasure), ruffling the tart-tongued older woman's feathers. But she falls in with ease among the musicians around the fire that night, earning their approval with guitar skills and vocal phrasing that recall those of her father.

These scenes operate with an understated ambiguity and tension that subtly tightens the material's hold. We clearly read the meaning behind Sinaloa's questions as she registers all that Merle inherited compared to how little was left to her after her father seemingly forgot about them and her mother died when she was 17. Even the way she takes ownership of the music — both the traditional ballads and Wayne's songs — infers that she's come to claim her part of the legacy, with anger, pain and defiance filling the plaintive cracks in Reid's singing voice. But when a black-sheep cousin (Tanner Beard) suggests hooking her up with an inheritance lawyer, she reacts with aggression.

At the same time as Sinaloa is taking stock of Wayne's clan, Merle begins to question her own contentment, not to mention her conflicted memories of her father, described later by Patricia as "a drunk, a drug addict and a cheater." Her half sister seems to be planting seeds to make Merle think differently about her demanding job at a local children's museum, her deference to her controlling mother, even her commitment to salt-of-the-earth Raul, who eventually grows more suspicious of the stranger's expanded presence in their lives.

All that chaos plays out with affecting transparency in Tolman's internalized performance, along with the gentler notes of Merle's gradual response to the unfamiliar intimacy of having a sister. Reid's characterization is composed of harder edges, from the thorny exterior to the bristling sense of wounded entitlement, though she makes Sinaloa as much a mystery as a disruptive force of malice.

It's worth noting that the filmmakers acknowledge Tender Mercies (that film's director, Bruce Beresford, is an executive producer here) as their favorite movie about Texas. And while La Barracuda turns several shades darker, there are affinities in its treatment of the intertwined cultures of country music and family, and in its mostly subdued dramatic canvas.

The sharp final-act swerve into violence may seem abrupt and shockingly graphic, but menace has been implicitly foreshadowed from the start. And Halperin and Cortlund show assurance in their choice to share the grisly details but leave us to imagine the horrified fallout. Shot with a keen, observant eye by Jonathan Nastasi, and scored by Chris Brokaw with lots of evocative guitar, this unsettling, quietly edgy genre piece maintains its grip on the viewer throughout.

Cast: Allison Tolman, Sophie Reid, JoBeth Williams, Luis Bordonada, Angelo Dylen, Larry Jack Dotson, Tanner Beard, Monique Straw
Production companies: Small Drama, Blue Suitcase
Directors: Julia Halperin, Jason Cortlund
Screenwriter: Jason Cortlund
Producers: David Harstein, Nancy Schafer
Executive producers: Henry V. Alfano, Bruce Beresford, Ian Brownell, Bert & Helena Halperin
Director of photography: Jonathan Nastasi
Production designer: Diz Jeppe
Costume designer: Laura Hamilton
Music: Chris Brokaw
Editor: Eva Claire
Casting: Vicky Boone, Samy Burch
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: Blue Suitcase

98 minutes.