Merle (Allison Tolman), the daughter of a deceased country music legend, enjoys the fruits of her father’s labor, and while she’s involved in protecting his legacy, that certainly didn’t stop her and her mother, Patricia (JoBeth Williams), from selling the rights to his songs when they needed money or leaving his treasured guitar to gather dust in a closet. When Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), a brash, confrontational drifter, bursts onto the scene claiming to be Merle’s half-sister from an affair that her father had decades ago in England, the equilibrium of Merle’s world is swiftly upset as she’s forced to reexamine the life she has, until this point, taken for granted.
Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund’s Barracuda explores the anxieties that Merle and Sinaloa have about their sisterhood, cannily playing Merle’s passive-aggressiveness against Sinaloa’s brassy shrewdness. Right off the bat, the filmmakers wisely position Sinaloa’s sudden appearance as being driven by emotion rather than money. In fact, when Merle’s cousin offers to put Sinaloa in touch with an attorney if she wants to get a piece of her father’s land, she cuts his ear with a knife—then heads back to Merle’s house and proceeds to casually tell her sister about the incident.
Sinaloa’s nonchalance is just one component of a crafty persona that makes her difficult to decipher; she keeps her true intentions buried beneath a fierce devil-may-care attitude that constantly leaves Merle on edge. In a scene that’s striking for how it says so much with so little words, Sinaloa casually plucks away at her father’s old guitar and angelically belts out one of his tunes. Merle is taken aback by the beauty of the performance but not as much as she is by the vaguely ominous glances that Sinaloa throws her way. Sinaloa seems to be flaunting her musical prowess as if to suggest that she was more deserving of their father’s love and attention over the years.
As Sinaloa inserts herself into Merle’s affairs, she slyly exacts her revenge for being tossed aside and forgotten by their father, presumably because of Patricia’s demands, and in the process exposes the precarious nature of Merle’s seemingly stable life. Using Merle’s indecisiveness to her advantage, Sinaloa subtly throws out seemingly non-threatening comments and suggestions in casual conversations that drive a wedge not only between Merle and her overbearing, controlling mother but also cause Merle to question her impending marriage to Raul (Luis Bordonada).
This insidious psychological manipulation is engaging for as long as Sinaloa’s motivations remain nebulous. When her behavior is chaotic and unpredictable, an unnerving undercurrent runs through the film that leaves the viewer as nonplussed and off-kilter as Merle. But as the film unfolds, Sinaloa’s incessant disruptions begin to form a predictable pattern that grows tiresome in its repetition. Merle’s inaction becomes more difficult to accept in the face of Sinaloa’s increasingly devious deeds, which hint at the potential to cause serious emotional distress and perhaps even lethal violence.
Though it ultimately works itself into a corner that betrays the raw authenticity at its core, Barracuda is anchored by a pair of dynamic, intuitive performances which mine the psychological complexities of an understandably troubled relationship. Throughout, the film’s deliberate pacing and use of live musical performances of plaintive country songs create a strong sense of place that enhances the unsettling nature of the sister’s knotty mind games. And even when the narrative goes a bit off the rails, the film continues to offer a perceptive study of the lasting pains of abandonment and the betrayal, jealousy, and righteous anger that derives from it.