Possessing a comfortable feel for both its rural Oklahoma setting and Native American community, but little else, Sterling Harjo’s Barking Water concentrates on the farewell tour of Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman), a terminally ill man whose ex, Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek), takes him from his hospital bed on a journey home to see his estranged daughter. Their trip is one of farmlands and two-lane blacktops spied out of dusty windshields while female musicians sing sad songs on the radio. It’s a template that quickly proves mind-numbing, and is broken up by a series of pit stops to see relatives—a clownish duo who order a plate of bacon and loudly pray at a diner; a young man who watches the sunset with them; a clan that sits around reminiscing and playing games—who usually make sure to ask what Frankie and Irene are doing back together. As revealed by limp flashbacks (shot with blah color filters) and their strained conversations, Frankie left Irene years earlier and, to get revenge, Irene claimed abuse and had Frankie severely beaten, events that caused a rift which is slowly healed by Frankie’s impending death and their visits to loved ones.
Writer-director Harjo poeticizes the open road with increasing redundancy, yet his identical scenic panoramas remain preferable to his dramaturgy, which mistakes silence for pensiveness, slowness for patience. Whitman and Camp-Horinek’s characters have been broadly conceived, and are embodied with a superficial two-dimensionality that leaves the film with an emotional void at its center. Barking Water‘s plotting and dialogue is blunt and obvious, such as during Frankie’s encounter with a redneck who initially slanders Native American medicinal remedies as “voodoo” and then, turning on a dime, decides to smoke some pot with the ailing stranger. Harjo’s schematic story takes its sweet time wending toward a therapeutic conclusion, its narrative’s address of life, love, and regret ultimately far less intriguing than an amusingly random, semi-serious question posed by one of Frankie and Irene’s kin: “Do you have a plan for when the zombies attack?”