As a millennial, seeing mass shootings has become the norm. Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 (when I was 2), which was far from the first mass shooting, it seems like the number has increased exponentially. It’s not something to get used to, but it is something you becomes desensitized to after repeated occurrences, like flu shots or dental procedures. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, with its seemingly stereotypical Americana masculinity, didn’t seem like a film that would be rife with subtlety, let alone with political subtext about the way guns are legally misused in America, both in egregious acts of terror and in quiet acts of social defiance. Despite itself, this is a film with something loud to say.
Gannon (James Badge Dale) is a former cop turned militia member in Northern Michigan. Gannon and his other militia members, Noah (Brian Geraghty), Beckmann (Patrick Fischler), Morris (Happy Anderson), Keating (Robert Aramayo), Hubbel (Gene Jones) and Ford (Chris Mulkey), meet up at their storehouse when it’s reported that the suspected gunman in an evening mass shooting at a police funeral is a local militia member. With missing guns and a lack of accountability, Gannon, as a former interrogator, is tasked with questioning the men to determine which member committed the shooting and to turn them into the authorities, absolving themselves of any guilt by association. As the night drags on, the men begin to realize that their tight bond might not be as strong as they initially thought.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a much quieter and slower film than one might initially assume. The film is broken up into different vignettes of each man’s testimony throughout the night and the forthcoming terror closing in on the group as their time runs out. The film almost feels like it’s more suited for the stage than it is the screen as it uses longer swaths of time to focus in on the actors’ interactions in small, limited spaces compared to that of any action. It’s quite thrilling to watch the claustrophobic nature of not only the physical surroundings of the men but also of the circumstantial ones as they take hold on each of their composures in different, equally compelling ways.
Each of the men displays a different sort of societal ostracism that has led him to this place in life as a rural militia member. Dale, known for his work in films such as Iron Man 3, Only the Brave, and 13 Hours, gives one of his best performances to date. Here, Dale gets to forgo the typical strong “everyman hero” for the aching, tired ex-cop desperate for answers. It gives Dale a chance to flex a muscle in a way that we haven’t seen him do before. This being said, it’s a surprising turn from Aramayo that almost makes The Standoff at Sparrow Creek what it is. Played initially as quiet member and much younger than the rest, Aramayo’s performance as Keating takes a turn that makes for one of the most expertly written back-and-forths between two characters I’ve seen in a film in a while. It’s one that is equally as entertaining as it is deeply disturbing.
Visually, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek isn’t much to look at. The colors are muted, the lighting is abysmal, and the settings are bland. All of this is done intentionally by first-time director Henry Dunham to make for a very off-putting experience watching. The only thing that may put off viewers is the lighting, which, while intentionally dark, was often so dark that it was tough to make out what was going on. The characters had similar silhouettes and the rooms were equally dim so it was difficult to see which of the characters were doing what at any given point. It was a bit of a struggle keeping up with what The Standoff at Sparrow Creek was doing at times, and for a mystery that has a lot of thematic precision, it’s something that should’ve been a bit more carefully constructed.
The third act of this relatively short film (88 minutes), does feel like a bit of a letdown compared to the first two acts which preceded it. In a film that relies so much on thematic intrigue and deeply developed characters, wrapping up in the way that it does doesn’t feel right. It certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but the bow placed on it doesn’t feel particularly well tied.
I didn’t know what to really expect going into The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, but it certainly wasn’t this. While it’s not perfect by any means, it’s a quietly unnerving character study about the guilt in complicity and the power that firearms hold over people in more than just the physical way. It’s chock full of great performances (with one superbly genius one from Aramayo), and its dialogue is truly compelling. The film almost implodes on itself in its final moments thematically and sometimes the visuals could use a little help, but the ways that Dunham constructs the story around the expectations of one film, and throws you in a vastly different direction into another is something I haven’t experienced in a film in a while. I salute it for that alone. The rest are all just great perks that come with it.
For more information on The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, head to the official RLJE Entertainment website.
In theaters, on VOD, and digital January 18, 2019.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.