Film

'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek' Is a Tense, Mean Little Film with Something to Prove

James Badge Dale as Gannon (© Cinestate Militia, LLC / IMDB)

Despite a premise that feels ripped from today's headlines, the debut film from writer-director Henry Dunham works as both a tense reflection on these times of gun violence and an effective study of something far more timeless.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
Henry Dunham

22 Sep 2018

Other

A synopsis for The Standoff at Sparrow Creek reads as conveniently topical. News of a mass shooting, a gun cache, anxious white men in middle America—the political touchstones are there for a ripped-from-the-headlines message movie. But do we really need to learn again about how guns are bad? Fortunately, as the plot of writer-director Henry Dunham's debut feature film cinches together, it becomes something else. Call it a meditation on a certain mindset, or just consider it a crackerjack whodunnit, this is a tense, mean little film with something to prove.

After hearing echoes of gunfire in the distance somewhere in rural Michigan, ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale) knows something is amiss. It sounds like an assault rifle, so off he goes to his militia's warehouse headquarters to convene with the rest of his crew. Given its brief runtime, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek ramps up quickly from there, moving from Gannon's isolation to introductory scenes of rapid-fire dialogue. We learn the particulars fast: this militia consists of seven men of various ages, all sharing the same paranoid worldview. Putting two-and-two together, they move into high alert; turns out the shooting was an attack on a police funeral, and what's worse, one of their guns is missing from the armory. These men now need to find out who pulled the trigger, or the cops will find an excuse to come down on them. Given a militia's usual purpose as something akin to a survivalist resistance force, this is either an ironic turn of events or destiny fulfilled.

Since the story is set largely in a single warehouse, and its cast fires off more lines of dialogue than bullets, an obvious point of comparison is Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. As in that film, the central concern is in discovering the one character who is not who they say they are. This is a superficial link, however. Where Tarantino sought always to underline his style, scoring his debut film with incongruent and catchy pop tunes, Dunham works as a minimalist. He torques his filmmaking via incisive editing, stark lighting, and a seemingly bottomless silence. The men of The Standoff At Sparrow Creek are left with just the echoes heard in their warehouse, wind howling through dead trees, the boom of a gun—all in darkness and shadow. In that atmosphere, the film's twists catch us off guard, as they do the characters. A more apt comparison, then, might be John Carpenter's 1982 masterpiece The Thing. The two films share a similarly warped worldview, with all their men (it's only men, of course) both isolated and scarily proficient—until something overwhelms them. In both cases, we only ever know these guys by their last names. Let's say The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is something like The Thing, but without the alien.

(IMDB)

Dale as leading man is no Kurt Russell but his presence has a similar effect here. Never certain as to his allegiances (to himself, the militia, or the cops), Dale plays Gannon as the right man for the job. It's the type of role he's often excelled in—the slippery sort, competent but with an edge. Even his good guy roles (as in AMC's short-lived Rubicon) find him as a man with skills, and something to hide. He has the respect of the militia, and he's put in charge of their in-house investigation, but we have our doubts. Likewise, Dale leads a fine cast of character actors, including familiar faces Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, and Gene Jones. What we learn about each character is enough to fuel our imagination; how each is used in the film, and how each actor breathes them to life, is more than enough to power the plot.

For a film as tightly made as this, peering into the presumably well-guarded lives of militiamen, it's fair to assume Denham has taken liberties. Aiding this perception, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is often schematic in its construction, like we're supposed to be impressed by the tight clockwork of its writing and effectively slick aesthetic. It can feel like Denham's film is more the product of his personal cinema synthesis than any real-world research or experience. That aforementioned synopsis reads as convenient because to be blunt, it's the kind of eye-grabbing thing a first-time feature filmmaker would seize upon. It's also a cynical, even paranoid, way of looking at this film.

In practice, however, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek doesn't function like that. Denham instead sets up a situation allowing for the study of a certain subset of masculinity—the angry ex-con, the old man loner, the disgruntled teen—using language as his primary tool, rather than violence (though there that, too). We're made to consider more primal concerns, feelings that go far beyond the mere desire to own a gun. Like its forebear The Thing, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a genre film that eschews the current political climate, which is precisely what allows it to reflect any political climate. In its spikes of terror, its glimpse into a void between order and chaos, its basic ticking suspense, it effectively approaches the timely subject matter of gun ownership and gun violence —but it also creates something timeless.

7


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Prof. Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.

Music

The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.

Music

Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.

Music

Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.

Television

HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.

Music

Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.

Music

Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.

Books

'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.

Film

'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.

Music

Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Music

DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.

Music

JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.

Music

​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.

Music

Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times

Music

Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.

Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.