Beneath its quiet surface, the Austin, Texas-set drama "Barracuda" thrums with menace and mystery from first moment to last. The story of half-sisters getting acquainted years after their philandering father's death, the movie spins a gripping web from its potent sense of place, and especially from the exquisite performances of Allison Tolman, Sophie Reid and JoBeth Williams.
Resentments churn and bonds are tested in the second feature by directors Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund. Working from the latter's taut screenplay, they've choreographed a tense dance among characters who will stay with you long after the unsettling fade-out.
Tolman of FX's "Fargo" is compellingly guarded yet transparent as Merle, a dependable museum employee who's planning her wedding to a nice guy (Luis Bordonada). He's more welcoming than she is when a hitchhiking Brit named Sinaloa (Reid) shows up on their doorstep, announcing that Merle's musician dad was her father too.
Merle's understandable wariness gives way to flashes of jealousy: Sinaloa is a musician, a spiritual connection to the old man that Merle can't claim. At the same time, the interloper's calculating gaze is focused on what Merle and her overbearing mother (Williams, never better) are entitled to as his "real" family.
With her uncompromising directness, made endlessly fascinating by the astounding newcomer Reid, Sinaloa quickens the senses of everyone around her. Hardened, predatory, anarchic, she awakens the long-suffering Merle's discontent.
Like a character in one of the ballads she sings with such haunting beauty, Sinaloa might have arrived "to claim what she's owed." But in this astutely observed tale, the lines of inheritance are no simple matter.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Playing: Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills