By Jeremy Carr.
The men of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek exist in a world of violence. It can be a basic violence, natural even, as when Gannon (James Badge Dale) hunts a deer at the start of the film, dresses his kill, then has the game as his evening meal. Or it can be a terrifying, twisted violence, as when as armed assailant attacks a funeral, the shots from which are heard in the distance as Gannon makes his rounds. The gunfire is sporadic at first and far off, but the sound increases in density and volume, penetrating the movie’s otherwise tranquil preamble. Gannon unboxes a scanner and tunes in to hear of the mass shooting. He leaves his hermetic homestead and arrives at an emptied lumber mill in the dark of night, where he is soon joined by six other men, each a member of the local militia (among several in the area) and each recounting bits of information picked up about the assault. It was a cop’s funeral; the targets were police; the shooter, still on the run, was armed to the teeth with a military-grade arsenal, including high-powered rifles, grenades, and IEDs. Speculation runs rampant amongst the men and a back-and-forth review breeds mounting discontent, tension, and paranoia, which peaks when it is discovered one of their own rifles is missing – the shooter is one of them, and it puts them all in jeopardy. This world of violence is self-inflicted. This world of violence has been created by the men who now suffer its consequences.
Written and directed by Henry Dunham, whose only prior work was a 17-minute 2014 short, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is an assured feature debut, assembling a taut ensemble of unsavory characters in what is a promptly fraught, Tarantinoesque setup, a slow-burn inquisition in a sequestered setting with an emphatically virile handful of men. With the reclusive Gannon, an ex-cop, the hardened militia includes the ostensible leader, Ford (Chris Mulkey), Hubbel (Gene Jones), Beckmann (Patrick Fischler), Morris (Happy Anderson), Noah (Brian Geraghty), and Keating (Robert Aramayo). These fellows are gruff and terse, posturing and moody all around, and while each actor has amassed a substantial list of credits in noteworthy film and television work (Aramayo is the only newcomer), their performances here are most convincing on the grounds of physical suitability. Save for Fischler, who is perhaps best remembered for his unnerving turn in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), and who appears peculiar in most any situation, the rest of this primary roster exemplifies their type to a significantly realistic degree, as if they were each cast from a round-up of rural locals. Surrounded by guns and lumber and pick-up trucks, they are a macho bunch, fortified with expectantly ample stare-downs, threatening insinuations, and downright accusations. There is, of course, something inherently dangerous in the secretive nature of their clandestine militia, but that strain has been accentuated by the recent raid and the localized responsibility. For as much as they have prepared for something like this (which is seemingly what a militia does: prepare – for whatever – in a perpetual state of suspicion), their present predicament has left them anxious and hesitant.
Gannon is enlisted to perform a series of interrogations and the preliminary questioning sequences are amusingly complete with smart-ass retaliations akin to 1995’s The Usual Suspects and mocking rebuttals. Having recently killed a deer, like Gannon, one member uses the gory remnants as his alibi, to which another responds, “So, you’re not a suspect because your car is covered with blood?” These interrogations also yield psychological disclosures and partial snapshots of individual backstory, each working to establish character in a film containing very limited flashback exposition. Accordingly, those who attempt to grapple with this nerve-wracking premise – those in the film and those watching – must wrestle with the uncertainty of false confessions and the ambivalence of a morally dubious allegiance. The militia members prove to be a surprisingly sharp, philosophical, and reflective bunch (Keating, previously thought mute, turns suddenly chatty with unexpected linguistic dexterity: “I don’t mean to trade monologues with you,” he comments to Gannon, nodding, in a sense, to the film’s more ostentatious passages of dialogue), but their treatment is uneven. When it comes to affirming the guilty party, Gannon and Ford are too dismissive of some and a little too intent on others, and although a central point of the film is that they are all equally capable, primed and equally volatile, it’s difficult to care for them either way. Guilty or innocent, most of these characters, in and of themselves, aren’t terribly interesting.
It seems doubtful that the initially intriguing approach of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek can be maintained, based on the isolated scale of the conflict (to start) and the restricted milieu, but Dunham quashes the early skepticism concerning his single-setting scenario. The film is well-paced and rightly-timed, clocking in at just under 90 minutes, which suits its narrative capacity. The settings, generally sparse and oppressive, are illustrated in an appealing variance of visual design, particularly with regards to Jackson Hunt’s cinematography and Dunham’s overtly conspicuous choices in composition and camera movement. The mill chambers are often barely lit, with the light that is emitted being done so in a sinister, striking fashion, emphasizing the film’s tone of cold apprehension, befitting the ominous, spontaneous middle of the night rendezvous it so accurately depicts (a persistent strain of metallic background thuds adds to the looming audiovisual motif). And though The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is self-contained, with austere theatrical staging and a secluded locale, Dunham cleverly employs the limitations of demonstration to the benefit of the picture, economically adding intermittent revelations (an undercover cop in their midst, an ex-Aryan Nation member, a police car showing up) and using CB radio communication to open up the film’s situational context: the apparent development of more shootings as the night wears on, similar in nature, intensifies the feeling of widespread alarm, like a spreading zombie infestation with its aural allusions to unseen external action.
In the thoughts and deeds of its central septet, if not in its literal message, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek contains a pervasive anti-authoritarian attitude, capped with the cliched presence of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. These men are contentedly and willfully operating outside the structures of conventional society, and yet, the very impetus of their group stems from the desire to be part of something, to meet the demands of a particular collective mentality. And part of that mentality is the almost desperate necessity of having a reason to form in the first place, of having the expectations (admittedly hoped for or not) of being called into action. These issues aren’t ever raised with conviction by Dunham, who essentially presents the conditions of his film and lets them play out without considerable commentary. But that did not stop The Standoff at Sparrow Creek from attaining a fair degree of controversy even before it premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The film was produced by Dallas Sonnier, whose recent projects Bone Tomahawk (2015) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), both directed by S. Craig Zahler, have generated polemic responses of their own, pertaining especially to some of their more incendiary content, namely the violence (his upcoming Dragged Across Concrete, also directed by Zahler, stars Mel Gibson in a story about police brutality, so that’s likely to follow suit). Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in spring of 2018, on the “age of Donald Trump” and the alienation felt by certain factions of America’s movie-going community, a community fundamentally opposed to those who form the nation’s critical establishment, Sonnier stated, “If we can make a movie that does not treat them as losers, or ask how dare they vote a certain way, or pander to them, naturally they’re going to respond in a positive way.”
There are indeed certain connective threads in some of what Sonnier has produced, certain ideological undertones, but he has also worked in diverse genres with markedly dissimilar material. Moreover, while select elements of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek may be jarringly relevant (the least of which is the concept of a mass shooting and the mere mention of an AR-15 rifle), the political implications of the film are tenuous at best. If there is a side taken in the end, it actually seems to rest on that of the police, a stance blatantly confirmed in an editorial juxtaposition of the militia men and their twitching legs and sweating necks, squaring off against the officers who are firm and composed; depending on how one chooses to read the film, it may have been pro-police all along, even if its main characters are decidedly opposed to such sentiment. In any case, however much its superficial substance does seem to lean to the right (what with its roster of middle-aged white men with guns), there is no clear indication of Dunham’s intent one way or another. Without applying undue interpretation, then, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a largely successful thriller, with an effective twist and an impressive, in some ways audacious, formal strategy. That it concerns a rarely represented segment of America’s population, as Sonnier notes, is simply part of its scenic composite.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.