The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Hypnotic, tense, and with numerous tricks up its sleeve, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” tells the story of six members of a militia who gather at a warehouse following a gunman who opened fire at a police funeral. They realize that the perpetrator is among them given the fact that one of the automatic weapons in their stock is missing in addition to some grenades, bullets, and bulletproof vests. Going to the police as a group is not an option—it is certain that every one of them would get the blame. So it is up to Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former cop who specializes in extracting confessions, to determine which of his peers is the gunman (Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler). Put your seatbelts on.

It is proud to be a film for cinéphiles. Right from its excellent opening scene in which we observe Gannon hunting an animal but instead the quiet, meditative moment is interrupted by a muffled but terrifying assault rifle going off in the distance, followed by well-paced opening minutes in which the curious faraway event feels as though it is encroaching toward Gannon’s isolated existence, writer-director Henry Dunham proves to be in complete control of all the gears and machinations of his material. For instance, he is fully aware that men gathering in an enclosed space and pointing fingers is not fresh, and so he is quick to unearth character details—to show from the get-go why his subjects, and therefore his story, are special. This is Dunham’s first feature film. And I suspect, should he continue to deliver high caliber work, it will be one of many.

Gannon is neither the toughest nor the smartest man in the room. But we get the feeling he is most principled, the one who is likely to do what is right. Dale plays the protagonist with quiet but commanding charisma; he evinces a certain goodness, trustworthiness. As our kind-of moral compass, we bond with Gannon as he interviews those who may have done the crime. By asking questions, and the manner in which he asks them at times, not only do we learn about the suspects, we also learn about the interviewer. It is most fascinating when he—inevitably—loses control of the interview process. There is not one dumb person in the group, but some are certainly smarter than others. A few are quite cunning, particularly the one who treats J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” as his bible. He does not speak.

The dialogue-heavy script is fun to listen to, to drill into, and to look back on and connect the dots. On this level, the script is worthy of being in the same sentence as Quentin Tarantino for it inspires those who love words and conversations to lean closer and listen a little more heavily, to determine whether something is being said in the unsaid. Each character has a specific voice, a perspective we may not agree with but nonetheless fascinating. Furthermore, those who are well-versed in good mysteries are certain to catch red herrings. The challenge, however, is determining how each “misplaced element” fits into the plot. There is not one wasted image here. Each one has its place. Even quick flashbacks usually treated as throwaways in lesser hands. I admired that.

I found “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to be riveting from start to finish. Even when I knew, for example, that a certain thing simply could not happen because doing so would betray the material’s themes, I caught myself feeling anxious anyway because what if turning certain themes inside out could end up more revealing than what is already in front of us? And therein lies Henry Dunham’s ability to play the audience like a piano. On the surface, the film is Tarantinoesque. But I’ll take it a step further and claim that, on the inside, it is Hitchcockian.

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