Fantastic Fest 2018 Review: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek



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Impressions and analysis of Henry Dunham’s The Standoff at Sparrow Creek are likely to gravitate to, or at least make an association with, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Both stories are anchored at central, safe house locations and involve men of questionable character. That’s where the comparisons should end. Creek‘s protagonists are not thieves. They are members of a local militia chapter. They have congregated at a lumber warehouse after news spreads of an unknown man opening fire at the funeral of a slain police officer. A number of cops are reported dead and the assailant managed to escape. Was it one of them? Can each member account for his whereabouts at the time of the shooting? These are but a few of the questions bandied about as they look for answers and how to proceed.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a whodunit only in the sense that the shooter needs to be identified for the group’s survival. But the aire of mystery is a trivial matter; the meat and potatoes of this tipping-point Midwestern thriller are the inherent ideas expressed about each member of the group and gravitating to be part of a militia.

Dunham conceived the story back in 2011 way before Sandy Hook Elementary, Aurora (Col.), Las Vegas, and the high school shootings at Stoneman Douglas (Fla.) and Santa Fe (Tex.). The film’s arrival in the 2018 climate of the right to keep and bear arms debate is appropriate as the thriller evokes panic as news of other militia factions across the country have responded by attacking police stations.

James Badge Dale does some of his best work as Gannon, an ex-cop who defects to this local militia. He is at a crossroads in his life, having left the force after an incident made him question the lengths at how far he would go to protect and serve. Experienced in suspect interrogation, Gannon leads the in-house investigation to determine just who might be the shooter. Their vacant warehouse armory is well stocked with thousands of rounds of ammunition, Kevlar vests, incendiary devices, and AR-15s, the infamous weapon of choice of mass shooting events.

All the AR-15s are accounted for except for one. Now time is of the essence to determine the individual responsible and get a confession before law enforcement storms the warehouse yelling “FREEZE!”

Shooting in a single location is an advantage for new filmmakers. The action is staged like a play so dialogue comes at a premium in moving the plot forward. Dunham used the works of Tom Stoppard (Arcadia) as inspiration in refining the various characters and it becomes apparent with the wordplay wellspring. Harried and standoffish in each other’s company at the start, they become loquacious as the minutes tick. Wide open areas inside the warehouse lead to smaller enclosures as dread looms to the point of claustrophobia. Words ricochet off walls and rafters like an accidental discharge.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a guessing game to the exact motivation. Each man holds a secret even though their allegiances are forged because of political ideologies. But Dunham himself withholds his own thoughts, allowing the characters to speak on his behalf. He is not telling the viewer to lean left or right; answering the questions poised ourselves allows for discourse on a subject that is never far from Breaking Story headlines.

Now Dunham’s debut isn’t without faults. A revelation had me scratching my head as it was oddly timed but altogether important. Then there’s the personal conflict on if we should feel some ounce of sympathy for these men, particularly how Morris (Harry Anderson) recounts to Gannon how an undercover cop stood idly by as his daughter was raped and murdered. All to protect an ongoing investigation.

As I said, this is James Badge Dale at his primo best. The way he moves in each scene and talks to the guys individually or as a collective is a thing of beauty. Gannon is conflicted and charismatic and those around him are more than willing to test his patience. The one who does the most damage is not one of the frumpy old-timers that go to the gun range and spend an hour firing off hundreds of rounds without hesitation. No, the one to rile Gannon is Keating (Robert Aramayo), the youngest in the militia; a bright, moody high school student that doesn’t talk. Gannon gets him to crack, and when he does it’s like a verbal rope-a-dope as Keating opens up and attempts to outsmart the ex-cop.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a sensational thriller that uses a plausible scenario to provoke fear. It draws you in with the echoing sound of gunfire and leaves you rattled as the smoke clears and weapons are holstered. This is a solid debut for a first-time filmmaker.

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