ND/NF: Winding roads and life’s complications in Sterlin Harjo’s Barking Water
Frankie and Irene once loved each other almost a lifetime ago, and then things fell apart. Then they loved each other again a little later, and things fell apart again, this time for good. (“If you ever leave me again, that’s it,” she tells him, then he leaves her.) The film leaves little doubt what happens each and every time: Frankie, inevitably, is the part of the equation bringing about the falling apart.
Only now Frankie is dying, discharged from the hospital to return home to die. And that complicates matters considerably. He isn’t “that other person” anymore, but Irene facing Frankie standing at her doorway isn’t so sure. As an audience member, I have stood inside the threshold of similar doors with Irenes, or out on the steps with Frankies, and I have come to expect these types of films to concern themselves largely with arguing a case one way or another: Frankie is now “another person” or he not. He has learned his lessons, the hard way, or not. She will forgive him and open up to him again, or she will not. But in the case of Sterlin Harjo’s frank, unsentimental Barking Water, it turns out that the “complicates matters considerably” portion of the setup is the key one.
A handful of other reviews and postings about this film can’t wait to tell you how the film turns out in their opening pitch; find that elsewhere. I’m more taken as a viewer, with how this movie takes the structure of the road movie, the love story, the getting back together story, and lets in the natural rhythms of two human beings who have spent a lot of time with each other and apart. The trip isn’t long enough to save anyone — Frankie’s medical condition is terminal — but it is long enough to get beyond the course-redefining mission of the road, to show us much deeper into this non-couple couple.
Irene reaches a breaking point. Frankie has been listening to a song on a mix tape over and over — a song had become what I thought was a leitmotif for the journey. Irene demands he give the song a break. “We haven’t listened to my music at all,” she says. As she says this, I realize that I, like Frankie, haven’t yet considered what she might want to hear, driving all those days and days beside him. Frankie likes the song, sets the deck to play it again, so Irene pulls the car to the side of the highway. She jumps out. Walks a dozen yards further down the highway by herself. There she stops, facing away from Frankie, waiting. Frankie remains in the car, waiting. Even with Harjo’s nice writerly touches throughout the film, lines of dialogue tucked in after explosive arguments, or rising up from whispers to penetrate silences, he holds off telling us anything more about what is going on inside Irene. Irene returns to the car, telling Frankie, “Just play it quietly.”
Harjo’s Barking Dog engages questions from his own his life, gives portraits of the communities he bridges, unafraid to veer off the main narrative interstate for us to really see some places. This film, like the couple at its center, like all roadtrips, finds great moments along the routes of local two-lane highways. At the end of the press screening, a notoriously “show-me” crowd, someone in the darkness called out, “If you don’t have tears in your eyes after that, you have no heart.” Gauging from that measure, I had plenty.