The Standoff at Sparrow Creek could be compared to Quentin Tarantino’s breakout 1992 hit, Reservoir Dogs. The setup is similar: dangerous men are brought together in the wake of a crime – in this case, a mass shooting at a public event that should remain unnamed – each one suspecting the other of being the guilty party, and nobody willing to give an inch. Beyond basic comparisons, however, director Henry Dunham’s film (which he also wrote) is decidedly its own thing, a daringly minimalist thriller that spends 90 minutes tightening its grip.
There’s no release in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, no catharsis, there is only screw-tightening tension between an impressive collection of character actors, all working with laser focus and never showing us too much. This story is as real as it gets. It respects and challenges the audience’s ability to pay attention and read between the lines, and leaves you in moral knots as it dives into the motivations and potential madness of both Militia and police. Everyone is a suspect and anyone can be guilty, depending on the circumstances.
James Badge Dale is our entry into the story. He’s Gannon, a former cop who serves as a sort of clean storefront to the local Militia to which he belongs. Gannon lives an isolated existence in his motor home, and he’s sitting down to cut into a fresh deer steak when he hears the gunfire. It’s from an automatic weapon, far away, but not far enough. Gannon knows something has happened, and he knows authorities will set their sights on the nearest Militia.
Gannon arrives at a remote lumber yard where a handful of Militia members and potential suspects arrive in short time. The leader of the team is Ford, played with serious authority and flippant sarcasm by the great Chris Mulkey; Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones and Happy Anderson make up the rogue’s gallery, but the less you know about each of these characters going in, the more satisfying the collection of twists and turns will be. Rest assured that each and every participant is emotionally self-contained, dodgy, and absolutely perfect in playing in their appropriate key.
The mass shooting is the catalyst that kicks the film into gear, and as the catastrophe outside intensifies in surprising ways, we are let into the lives of each and every member of the group. All of them live a life of isolation, and the film attempts to try and exhume the demons that can fester inside a person who would find solace in something a paranoia-fueled Militia. Except Dunham’s screenplay does not demonize or mock these characters and their intelligence. They aren’t fools or rednecks, and they each have their reasons for being in this predicament. Dunham is attempting to understand the world these men inhabit with an honest approach to them as human beings, and the result is a film that breaks down any reluctance you may have towards its characters and locks you inside this lumber warehouse right along with them, digging for answers.
This is a dark film, often lit with harsh flashlights, or fluorescents, or a clicking, buzzing security light setup around the lumber yard perimeter, or a patrolmen’s wandering beam. We are given a glimpse inside a what feels like an authentic Militia, where a carefully-manicured arsenal and a warehouse full of survival gear is handled responsibly, that is, until one of the members snaps. These Militia men have radical views, and they prepare and protect their own, and they are isolated, but are the criminals? Typically, they aren’t criminals until they are, and that’s the confounding chasm where this story unfolds.
There are reveals in Sparrow Creek, and a substantial twist that lays everything you’ve just seen out on the table, open for discussion. Here is a film that exists in the greyest of areas, forcing the viewer to pick a side, neither of which are desirable. It’s a slow-burning moral puzzle that feels unsolvable in the end, and it’s the confident arrival of a strong new voice in Henry Dunham.