The stranger that rides into town is a movie trope that’s well-worn, but with “La Barracuda,” filmmakers Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund use suspense, unease, original music, and a Texas setting to bring a fresh new take on the genre. The movie premiered at this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival and screens this Saturday out of competition at the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg.
The movie opens on Sinaloa (newcomer Sophie Reid), hopping off the train in Austin, and onto the doorstep of Merle (Alison Tolman, TV’s “Fargo”). She introduces herself to Merle as her half-sister by way of their dead country musician father. Cortlund says he and Halperin crafted the story by thinking about how to “withhold information in the right kind of way to pull the audience closer to you.” Sinaloa, after all, hits all the right marks when bringing up her shared past with Merle, despite neither woman having ever met.
Tension builds as Sinaloa winds her way into Merle’s life. What’s Sinaloa after? Not money, as is made evident in an early scene that with its violence displays how passionately Sinaloa feels about her place in the family. “When she finally reaches Texas,” actress Sophie Reid posits, “it’s been a long period of preparation” and she’s after justice—and a sense of belonging to something, no matter what the cost. Having been abandoned by her parents, Sinaloa was “innocently and unwillingly ostracized for something she never had control over,” Reid continues, “but what she didn’t expect was to feel any sort of tenderness toward Merle.”
That relationship between Sinaloa and Merle is the heart of and source of the suspense and tension in “La Barracuda.” Sinaloa begins interfering with her sister’s upcoming marriage, and her relationship with the rest of the family, especially her mother (JoBeth Williams, playing it in a whip-smart “I know what you’re up to, lady” style).
Throughout the film, the narrative is punctuated by songs, both original and classic, performed live by Reid as Sinaloa, as well as talented Texas musicians like Colin Gilmore (son of Jimmie Dale Gilmore), who wrote the original tunes with Cortlund. In that way, Cortlund and Halperin say they looked to another classic Texas film for inspiration, “Tender Mercies.”
The Horton Foote-written 1983 drama about an aging country musician might seem like an unlikely source, but Cortlund says “how the songs work in ‘Tender Mercies’ was certainly an influence. It’s about reaching into the character’s past and getting into a deeper sense of history, landscape, and culture.”
Halperin also notes that “Tender Mercies” indirectly inspired Sinaloa’s character. In that film, Ellen Barkin plays absentee father Robert Duvall’s daughter. “She has, sort of, one tragic moment and then she dies,” Halperin explains. “Sinaloa is in some ways like a re-imagining of who that character might have been in a certain way. What it does, psychologically, if your father is this famous but not present character in your life.”
To research the Texas music scene, Halperin and Cortlund had Allison Tolman and Sophie Reid both watch “Heartworn Highways,” a 1981 documentary about the Outlaw Country movement featuring Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and Townes Van Zandt. “There’s a scene where’s it’s a Christmas Eve, at Guy Clark’s house,” Cortlund explains, “where he and Steve Earle and a bunch of people are gathered around drinking red wine out of jugs, and playing different songs, and in the background you kind of see these dirty children in diapers running around.”
“They’re kind of climbing on people’s laps,” Halperin continues. “But it’s Christmas Eve, [and] kids don’t want Christmas Eve to be yet another night of cigarettes in the ash tray and empty wine bottles!”
“We sat down when we first got Sophie and Allison in Austin,” says Cortlund, “and we really wanted to show them that scene because it was this very crystallized vision of like what childhood in that family might feel like. For Merle, that’s a nightmare, and for Sinaloa, that’s maybe a fantasy.”
That push and pull between Merle and Sinaloa creates the narrative tension in “La Barracuda,” and until the very end, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. I may have even had to untie my stomach a bit, worrying about these two women’s intertwined future.
“La Barracuda” opened to great reviews last month, and will screen at 7:15 p.m. Saturday at the Hill Country Film Festival in Fredericksburg, Texas. The film's producer, David Hartstein, will be there for a Q&A session following the show. Screenings at festivals in Chicago and Boston are on the calendar, and as Cortlund notes, “We definitely have an international premiere as the next big step. Having a great launch at SXSW is a place where people are seeing the film and talking about the film, and so we’re hopefully going to have more opportunities going forward!”
Listen to the full-length interview with Jason Cortlund, Julia Halperin, and Sophie Reid below.