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THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK (2018) review

January 31, 2019

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written by: Henry Dunham
produced by: Johnathan Brownlee, Adam Donaghey, Sefton Fincham, Amanda Presmyk & Dallas Sonnier
directed by: Henry Dunham
rating: unrated
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: January 18, 2019 (AMC Woodridge, YouTube, Google Play, Amazon & VOD)

 

It’s a real shame that Henry Dunham’s directorial debut “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is getting such an under-the-radar release at a time when the focus is on awards season and not so much on new, original films, especially ones that get dropped in a clandestine manner on various streaming platforms. While the film was received well when it premiered at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, releasing it in the middle of January is the same as not even giving it a chance. It’s hard enough for a film to get traction in the current release environment, but  when the film festival run is short-lived and the marketing is paper thin, films like this one have very little chance of making a blip on a viewer’s radar. This is an atmospheric and enthralling thriller which deserves an audience and I’m glad I watched it.

Dunham, who also wrote the original screenplay, offers a look into a specific handful of people, the kind we typically only hear about on when they pop up on rare 12/7 and it’s never in an encouraging light. That doesn’t change much here, but at least time and effort is given to humanize what we would otherwise consider despicable characters whose actions are usually seen as extreme measures.

The film hooks our attention early on, during its mysterious introduction where we gradually meet the male characters and reels us in once a key realization is made. What’s most noticeable right away as we wonder what kind of men we’ll be following – criminals or law enforcement? – is the striking cinematography by Jackson Hunt (also making an impressive feature debut), which primarily lenses characters in shadows with minimal artificial light, adding to the film’s budding curiosity. The characters gradually arrive at night in an expansive warehouse, one by after the other, where lights are dim and voices kept low, pulling the audience in closer and closer. When the details surrounding why these seven men have gathered together are revealed, our interest and curiosity has been piqued.

 

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We learn from the group’s leader, a guy named Ford (Chris Mulkey), that the local Michigan news has reported that a heavily armed gunman has emerged from the woods earlier in the evening and opened fire on a police funeral. This is concerning news considering they are one of a handful of militia groups in the area that have access to weaponry and a history of grudges against law enforcement. Ford knows that it’s only a matter of time before the mounted search for the killer will wind up at the doorstep of their location. Their situation becomes all the more real when Ford realizes that same kind of rifle used by the shooter is missing in their own arsenal, which leads him to believe that one of them committed the crime.

Ford knows that whoever is captured by authorities isn’t going to get a fair trial and will likely get tortured and disposed of. It’s best to figure out which of his own brethren is the gunman and deal with it on his own terms.  In order to determine who it might be, Ford enlists one of their own, Gannon (James Badge Dale), to interrogate the group since he’s an ex-cop with experience in getting the truth out of a suspect. Gannon knows that one of two outcomes will occur when he’s through with each interrogation: confession or denial. Such a task doesn’t go over well with the rest of the group, which consist of the burly Morris (Happy Anderson), the mute Keating (Robert Aramayo), the shifty Noah (Brian Geraghty), the technician Beckman (Patrick Fischer) and the eldest among them, Hubbel (Gene Jones). Gannon soon finds that getting a definitive answer isn’t that easy, as accusations fly back and forth when each man is treated like a suspect, yet at the same time we learn more about each one of these men when the spotlight is highlighting their motivations and actions of the past and present.

The best part of “Sparrow Creek” is Dunham’s screenplay since I did not at all see where he was going with the story. That’s a real treat right there. Maybe other viewers caught on to where this storyline was going, but not me and that means that I was so absorbed in the story and the characters that at no point did I catch on or speculate where this was going. It was great to just be enraptured and simply go along for the ride for a change.

As the film kicks off after it’s compelling introduction, there is an understanding (and assumption?) that we’re going to learn more about each individual in this militia group. Could one of these revolutionaries really start such a war without consulting with the everyone else considering that the entire group would be investigated, maybe even implemented? That’s one of many questions we ask ourselves as “Sparrow Creek” unfolds in a contagious slow burn. Never did I think I would be so invested in a group of militia guys, but Denham does a stellar job at offering wholly realized characters that exude understandable degrees of fear and tension.

 

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Admittedly, this is a film that may not be for everyone, since it’s pacing is glacial and it relishes in the dialogue exchange that comes with each engaging interrogation. Gannon is clever and tricky, knowing what kind of buttons to push and how to manipulate each of his cohorts. One of the best scenes is his conversation with Morris, who is bound to a chair yet reveals why exactly he has such malice toward police. It’s hard for us to pinpoint where exactly Gannon’s loyalties lie as well. He could be covering his own tracks as he conducts these interrogations, but at each turn, antagonisms and suspicions are palpable within the group, making it hard to determine if there even is one specific person responsible for the events that occurred earlier.

At times, it does feel like Demham’s screenplay could benefit from picking it up a step or two, but I can appreciate how there is a commitment to maintain a certain pace and tone throughout the film. There is already comparisons to Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and understandably so, but I would venture to say that there’s more intentionally comedy in that debut than there is in Denham’s. I’m glad that’s the case since there is really no need or place to inject humor here, considering the grave situations that occur throughout the evening.

Beyond the sharp dialogue and atmospheric cinematography, another treat that “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” offers is a stellar cast, one that has actors who are typically found in great supporting roles stepping to the forefront. Dale is always great and here it’s refreshing to see him take on what is essentially a lead role. It’s also pleasing to see the likes of Mulkey and Fischer, who have appeared in a plethora of movie and television roles, portraying characters that we automatically think are going to go one way, but wind up going the opposite direction.

“Sparrow Creek” reminds me of the times a film can feel like a stage production, which can sometimes take you out of a viewing experience, but the opposite happens here. That’s due in part to the fantastic production design, which may seem sparse since it’s all one location, but that actually becomes the draw here. This is essentially an uneasy look at modern-day America, but at least the characters here don’t feel the kind of stock stereotypes we expect to find in such an environment. Ultimately, this film will be a real treat of those who appreciate the prose of Mamet or the acknowledgment of someone like Tarantino, at least that’s exactly what came to my mind and made me smile.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

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