The Standoff at Sparrow Creek [Review]
For as long as there have been movies, creators have asked us to sympathize with—or at least be engaged with—the devil. In 1903 The Great Train Robbery had audiences watch as a group of bandits took down a train. In 1990, Martin Scorsese had us sneering at the betrayal of a mobster against his thieving, murderous cohort. Two years later, Quentin Tarantino announced himself to the world with the story of a band of jewel thieves with no honor, no names, and no ethics. There has rarely if ever been a point at which a lack of ethical or moral agreement with the characters in a movie has been an impediment to enjoying the film, or at least giving it a shot.
But that was then and this is now. In 2019, Trump has been president for two years and the Internet has allowed for a level of isolation that many people find comforting and sometimes even psychologically necessary. While that may be true for friendships and relationships and daily discourse—who wants to spend all day arguing with someone?—it is also becoming a fact in our consumption of art. There’s no need to spend time in the company of bad people when with a few clicks of the mouse or a few taps on a smartphone you can be basking in the warm glow of people who share your every thought and feeling and offer you no challenges or uncomfortable bursts of empathy.
Which is a shame, because this new and modern desire for moral purity will keep many people from seeing or enjoying one of the best films you are likely to see this year. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, the debut from writer/director Henry Dunham, is a closed-door thriller honed down to the lithe sharpness of a boning knife. The dialogue crackles, the actors brood and storm, and the starkly lit interiors seem to grow and shrink in time with the mood of those who inhabit it. This is a film that is a Swiss watch of style, plotting, and performance on all levels.
The issue, if it could be called that, is that the movie focuses on a subset of the population that is, with the exception of perhaps the Ku Klux Klan, immediately and rightfully detestable. Militia movements, for the unaware, are groups of mostly white men who believe that they need to prepare and train for an eventual break from society, specifically working against the federal government and the police; anyone who could be seen as curtailing the God-given freedoms that America promises. In terms of unsympathetic or downright detestable characters, this movie has then in spades. What it also has, by virtue of owning these characters and their place within and outside of society, is a whole different powder keg to place on top of all the others that a story like this can provide.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek opens with ex-cop and current militiaman Gannon (a suitably weary and haunted-looking James Badge Dale) hunting in the woods when he begins to hear the unmistakable sound of gunfire. Listening to a police scanner, he finds out that a police funeral has been the target of an unknown mass-shooter and that many of his former brothers-in-arms are dead. After meeting with the heads of his militia and taking stock of their armory, it becomes clear that one of the men, each of whom has a less-than-reliable alibi, was responsible. Wanting to keep their cell intact and avoid the inevitable violent police response, Gannon is tasked by the nominal leader Ford (Chris Mulkey) to find out who among them decided to start the revolution early.
The looming threat of police retaliation and the simple fact that these are men who have been training for and anticipating violence makes the stakes as high as can be. What makes this movie more than just a story of mean men and imminent death, though, is the characters that Dunham creates through these militiamen. The portraits are far from sympathetic, but they are empathetic and understanding. Gannon, whom Dale turns into an investigative interrogatory chameleon, is a wounded and weary soul who needed to feel like a part of something purer than the police. The silent, glowering Keating (Robert Aramayo) is a social outcast with a desire to belong without having to be more than he is, an angry, intelligent young man. The small insights we get into these men’s lives (school teacher, hunter, former highway contractor, seeing a therapist, ancillary victim of police violence) show us the variety of the kinds of people and personalities that these extremist groups attract. Their dialogue is specific to each of them, avoiding the usual pitfalls of these kinds of movies, where hyper-verbal pop-culture machismo is often the common tongue.
These complex and well-defined characters are all situated in an environment that suits them, a lumbar storage facility that is at once spare, crowded, open, and claustrophobic, depending on what the scene requires from it and the energy that the characters put into it. The cinematography by Jackson Hunt is moody, stark, sometimes making the film seem as though it were monochromatic. Shadows and light play like building clouds on the horizon heralding a storm. Dunham knows how to frame a single room from every angle to keep the scenes from ever becoming boring without going so far overboard that the movie feels frantic or showy. It is a masterful expression of restraint and confidence.
None of this matters, though, if people decide not to see the movie based purely on its characters affiliations. Is the assumption that in writing about such men, Dunham must agree with them? That in giving them lives and personalities not immediately detestable and risible that he must want us to follow their lead? The magic of cinema is to create worlds we might not otherwise see, and to put us in the company of people we might not otherwise meet. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does this not by looking to the stars or diving beneath the surface of the sea, but by lifting up a rock we perhaps never realized was situated in our own backyard.
You don’t have to like militiamen (or cops, for that matter) in order to love The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. and no one is asking you to—I might argue that the film’s ending plays better if you have a health skepticism towards both of those groups. If you like smart, stylish storytelling on a deeply personal scale, however, then The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is everything you could hope for and more.