Movies regarding real-world gun violence are more terrifying than ever, as our current political climate makes us feel like we’re on the precipice of the country tearing itself apart. Knowing that The Standoff at Sparrow Creek dealt with a mass shooting, I wasn’t immediately drawn to it, yet the positive buzz I had heard about it piqued my interest. Luckily, I rolled those dice and watched the movie and, while it’s only January, realized why this film is sure to land on countless Best of 2019 lists. The film is a gripping master class in tension, grounding a whodunit with real-world tragedies and politics that will leave viewers untrusting of everyone they’ve ever met.
In a rural community, members of a militia convene at their headquarters when they hear about a shooting at a cop’s funeral, leaving many dead. When they realize that one of their AR-15s is missing, they deduce that one of them must be responsible, despite all of them denying responsibility. The group relies on a member who is a former police interrogator (James Badge Dale) to figure out who’s really responsible, with virtually every member having the justifiable motivations, whether police were involved with the death of a loved one or they felt society had turned their back on them. As the interrogations continue, more details come in about militias across the country being inspired by the shooting, with each passing moment seeing more people die and the potential for authorities to lay waste to the entire organization.
I have no idea who writer/director Henry Dunham is, but his debut feature film has immediately made him one of my favorite new filmmakers whose work I’ll be eagerly awaiting. Given that it’s his first feature, audiences might notice influences from other directors, which all blend together for an impressive final product. Taking the intense mystery of Reservoir Dogs as seen through the lens of David Fincher with the blend of genre film and straightforward drama accomplished by Jeremy Saulnier and you’re left with The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. There’s not a single moment wasted in the film, with the scoreless experience making you feel like you’re in this abandoned lumber warehouse alongside all of these fanatics, ultimately leading to an unexpected finale.
The film wasn’t a success merely because of Dunham, as the cast was full of performers often known for their strong supporting roles in other endeavors, with the characters they played feeling like they were written specifically for them and the talents they demonstrated in other movies. Featuring Patrick Fischler (Mulholland Drive), Gene Jones (The Sacrament), Chris Mulkey (The Purge), and more, every actor fully leans into their role and plays their part not only in the film, but bring to life unique perspectives they add to this militia to play off of one another to heighten and alleviate the tension in swells to keep the audience guessing about who is telling the truth. Allowing the cast to fully demonstrate their skills was the isolated nature of the narrative, which is almost entirely set within one building. Like the classic War of the Worlds story claiming listeners of the program believed the world had been taken over by aliens as they heard a fictional narrative on the radio, or the more recent horror movie Pontypool about survivors of a zombie-like outbreak in a radio station relying on reports from witnesses, the only connection the characters in the film have to the outside world is what they are being told by CB radios, forcing not just the characters but also the viewers into a tailspin of how one simple action can kick off a revolution, adding unseen gravitas to the contained narrative.
In 2017’s Bushwick, a civil war breaks out in the New York neighborhood, forcing two residents to band together amidst the chaos. That film made it quite clear who were the bad guys and who were the good guys, because the bad guys were the ones with the guns. Standoff at Sparrow Creek serves as the perfect pairing to the film, depicting the reverse perspective of a similar concept, yet what this film does far more effectively is make you both empathize with the members of the militia while also wishing they would get what was coming to them. While America owes a lot to militias for making us, ya know, a country, back in the 1700s, militias are currently, ya know, fucking terrifying. Knowing that we’re going inside a militia will immediately make you hope that they pay for their paranoia that caused them to stockpile deadly armaments, removing the sexiness of “bank robbers” that we were given in Reservoir Dogs. However, as the plot unfolds, we learn the stories that led these people to this point, proving that the system and the police force were truly criminals, with the big difference being that the cops were getting away with things. One scene will make you hope that police descend on the facility and enact justice, with the next scene showing you that everyone had the best of intentions and everything was ruined by one heinous crime.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is quietly explosive, taking viewers on both an emotional and genre-bending journey. From the direction to the performances to the story to the editing, the film knows exactly what it wants to accomplish and does so effortlessly, grabbing the audience by the throat and not letting go until the final moments, with the resolution making you relieved to catch your breath but disgusted to breathe the atmosphere of the disgusting world we live in.
Wolfman Moon Scale