Film Review: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
A Quiet January Gem
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, screenwriter Henry Dunham’s directorial debut, is a quiet VOD and limited release sure to fly under the radar of general audiences during this sleepy January. A taut and effective single-location thriller, the film’s pulp dialogue and airtight pacing make it one of 2019’s first great surprises. The always welcome and underrated James Badge Dale rounds out an all-star cast of character actors in a pulse-pounding mystery. Minor spoilers ahead...
It’s impossible to talk about The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, a film that centers around a mass shooting and private militias, without invoking politics and gun control debate. In the public eye and consciousness with events such as Ruby Ridge, Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing, armed right-wing organizations have always been a part of the fabric of conservative America; from disgruntled citizens all the way to neo-Nazis, private militias run a troubling and diverse gamut. With today’s political climate and ugly surge of gun violence, it’s also sensitive and controversial territory, but The Standoff at Sparrow Creek deftly walks that razor-thin tightrope, all the while keeping its teeth. Explosive but not incendiary, the film wisely sidesteps the quagmire of political finger-wagging and instead focuses on unspooling a gripping narrative that recalls thrillers and whodunnits such as Murder on the Orient Express, Assault on Precinct 13, and Reservoir Dogs.
Standoff follows a man named Gannon (James Badge Dale, Rubicon, Hold the Dark) who, at the start of the film, is waylaid from a late afternoon hunting trip by the distant sound of automatic gunfire. An ex-cop that now belongs to a private militia, Gannon turns on his police scanner and makes his way back to the stark lumberyard that he and six other men use as their militia headquarters. From there, it’s quickly revealed that the gunfire heard earlier was a mass shooting at a police funeral that left scores dead and the perpetrator in the wind; furthermore, police broadcasts describe the weapon used in the shooting as a modified AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, firepower that only the militia possesses. Shocked by the revelation, the group conducts an inventory of the establishment’s armory that quickly confirms its worst fears: the barracks are missing a rifle, ammunition, hand grenades, and body armor. The combination code to the armory, known only to members of the militia, rotates every two days. Ford (Chris Mulkey, Captain Phillips, Twin Peaks), the group’s leader, then deputizes Gannon and his extensive interrogation abilities to ferret out the shooter, who must be one of their own.
A relatively simple setup, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek proceeds at brisk pace with its singular location and hard-boiled interrogations. Extremely light on action, the film uses pure tension and its punchy Mamet-esque dialogue to propel the narrative, aided by some wonderful character actor work - the supporting cast rounds out a full spectrum of personalities, from the nervous and sarcastic Beckmann (Patrick Fischler, Lost, Mulholland Drive) to the extremely intelligent but obviously disturbed Keating (Robert Aramayo, Game of Thrones’ young Ned Stark). False confessions, misleading police broadcasts, and the looming threat of death blanket the story with a film of paranoia and creeping suspicion. Drenched in shadows and a steely-blue color grading, the movie’s stark mood is amplified visually by the work of cinematographer Jackson Hunt - it’s some entrancingly beautiful stuff, as beautiful as a film about armed militiamen can be. Standoff, as a whole, is a mesmerizing paradox: dialogue-driven but contemplative, sprawling but claustrophobic, it’s a rare-breed filmmaking feat that furiously brushes against the grain of the shiny and whiz-bang spectacle of mainstream Hollywood. The old adage here does ring true: “they don’t make them like this anymore.”
In the end, however, Standoff does deflate a little in the third act, with a conclusion that errs on the wrong side of pat and tidy and some strange characterizations that I had a hard time wrapping my head around. But that doesn’t diminish what comes before - director Henry Dunham’s has crafted a fine debut thriller that fits right in with producer Cinestate’s library of films, a library that includes the brutal filmography of a Strange Harbors favorite, S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). January is usually seen as a dumping ground for the world of cinema, and this tiny limited release won’t change that perception at all, but The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a breath of fresh and paranoid air: a vintage and efficient conspiracy thriller that doesn’t give a shit about politics, only about telling a great story.