“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” Movie Review


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     Writer/ Director Henry Dunham’s feature debut, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek”, is a stunning and brilliant achievement worthy of being touted as the first great film of 2019.  And while it is certain there will be many more, it would be a massive disservice to forget the film when best of lists are being compiled at the end of the year.  Working with a budget of less then $500K, the film takes place within the claustrophobic confines of a large lumber warehouse and is populated with a cast comprised of seasoned veteran character actors that most casual movie watchers likely won’t recognize.  But the tension Dunham and this group manage to create, working from a fantastic script by Dunham as well, rivals the very best thrillers of the past decade, while also managing to create several unique twists of its own.

     The easy comparison here would be Tarantino’s 1991 classic “Reservoir Dogs”, but look deeper and you’re likely to find similarities within another genre entirely.  Essentially, what Dunham has created, with his men trapped in small spaces scenario, is something more akin to Ridley Scott’s “Alien” or John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, but without the monster.  Although with these characters, many of them certainly could qualify for such a distinction.  Nearly every scene is lit with a semi bright key light illuminating the actor’s faces from only one direction, leaving the rest of their silhouette shrouded in darkness.  People can appear and you didn’t know they were there, while others just walk away mid conversation without the audience knowing.  All of this plays to important aspects of a plot torn directly out of today’s headlines.

     When we first meet Gannon (James Badge Dale), he’s deep in the woods lying hidden within some brush and concealed behind a tree.  With a rifle and scope, he has a deer in his sights.  We don’t see him pull the trigger, but the next shot indicates he bagged his prey, as we catch up with him at his seemingly middle of nowhere trailer.  As he’s eating dinner alone, he hears automatic gunfire repeating in the distance.  Soon after, he gets a call to meet at the Sparrow Creek lumber yard from the leader of the militia he belongs to.  The message is one of urgency.

     Gannon is an ex-cop who now toils away with a small militia in Northern Michigan.  I found this interesting since a memorable segment in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” features interviews with a couple of these sloppy out of shape whack jobs who spend their days training like soldiers just in case they may need to stop the government from taking away their arms, or something like that.  And in that exact vein we have a group of seedy looking individuals show up at the lumber warehouse to find out what has happened.

     Off camera, a lone gunman has committed a mass shooting at a police funeral.  The murderous monster was said to have fired hundreds of rounds with an assault rifle, and employed the use of IEDs hidden amongst the grave stones in order to maximize casualties which is said to have been nearly everyone attending the service.  Through listening to the police radio, the group realizes that the local militias are the prime suspects, and Ford (Chris Mulkey), the group’s leader, has called a meeting to find out if the suspect is among them.  Complicating matters is the fact one of the AR-15 assault rifles from the militia’s armory is missing, and everyone who has the code to that armory is now in the room.

     Because of his background as a cop, Ford charges Gannon with interrogating the prime suspects in the group, who are made up of confessed murderers, former members of the Aryan Nation, and prototypical anti social types who scream serial killer just by their mere presence.  If you’re familiar with police interrogation techniques, the dialogue in these scenes will be quite intriguing to you, as you’ll right away pick up on Gannon’s methods in an effort to gain confessions from the militia’s most obvious suspects.  Beyond this, the group finds themselves unable to leave the lumber yard, as it is now being reported via police radio that several militias have completed coordinated attacks throughout the United States.  The mistrust then begins to brew within, as each begins to wonder what the other knows and isn’t telling them.

     Dunham’s team proves top notch with outstanding work from Director of Photography Jackson Hunt, Production Designer Adam Dietrich, and Editor Josh Ethier, creating a dark, gritty, atmosphere for the actors to thrive in.  And all of this is accomplished without a single note of musical score to support it.  When you think about the limited indie budget, as well as the shooting schedule said to have been only 18 days, it’s astounding what the filmmakers were able to create with such limited resources.

     Perhaps even more compelling is the narrative being centered around a mass shooting and the use of an assault rifle equipped with a bump stock serving as the primary means of the attack, particularly given the many recent events in our country.  A plot point made even more shocking when we begin to realize the make up of this militia, as it features several members who would qualify as having the background and personality traits of a poster child for a mass murderer.  At a certain point in the film, you’d likely believe it could have been any one of them. A testament to the superb performances by the supporting cast that includes Brian Geraghty (“The Hurt Locker”), Patrick Fischler (“Mad Men”), Happy Anderson (“Bright”), Robert Aramayo (“Nocturnal Animals”, “Game of Thrones”) , and Gene Jones (“The Hateful Eight”).  As for Dunham, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” announces his successful arrival into feature filmmaking and assures his growing audience will no doubt be looking forward to his next project.  GRADE: A