Even in these politically charged times, the fact that the characters in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek are part of a right-wing militia doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed on the basic thriller level it aims for. Movies like this hinge on engaging with bad people all the time, and writer/director Henry Dunham doesn’t ask us to sympathize with these men or their cause. In a sense, current events have done some of Dunham’s work for him, as he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time explaining their beliefs and motivations, but rather jumps right into a tense and generally engrossing scenario.
Other than a brief scene at the beginning, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek takes place entirely in and around a rural lumber warehouse where this small group convenes for an unplanned meeting. Someone has shot up a nearby police funeral with a modified AR-15, and their leader, Ford (Chris Mulkey), knows that this is going to bring heat down on them and others like them in the area. When it turns out that just such a gun is missing from their large stockpile of weapons, it becomes clear that one of this gang is responsible, though of course they all have alibis—some of which emphasize that these are ordinary folks beyond their commitment to their dubious cause. One is a schoolteacher who claims he was grading papers at the time of the attack; another says he was out hunting, and successfully bagged his quarry. “So you’re not a suspect because your car’s covered in blood?” comes the reply, one of many good, pithy lines in Dunham’s screenplay.
The task of sussing out the culprit falls to Gannon (James Badge Dale), who used to be on the police force himself and is thus skilled in the art of interrogation. The most likely suspects are Morris (Happy Anderson), an ex-Aryan Brotherhood member who has said inflammatory things in the past and has a particular problem with policemen, and Keating (Robert Aramayo), a scary-looking guy who says nothing at all. No one will own up to the shooting, of course, and as the film goes on and we learn more about their sometimes violent and tragic backgrounds, suspicion and distrust bubble up and ultimately come to boil amongst the men.
The modern archetype for this type of story is obviously Reservoir Dogs, and some of the tension here similarly derives from the presence of an undercover cop amongst them—though here, it’s because we learn early on who it is, and the others have no clue. Standoff is also considerably less profane than the movies of Quentin Tarantino and many of his imitators, and Keating, when he finally opens his mouth, is the only one who speaks with heightened, erudite dialogue, analyzing Gannon right back as Gannon tries to get answers out of him. A flashback to Gannon’s past aside, Dunham eschews time-jumping tricks and tells his story in a clean, straightforward manner, with rigid compositions that often isolate the characters in cavernous rooms, and Jackson Hunt establishes and maintains an oppressive mood with his shadowy cinematography.
There are no real heroes in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, but the characters are well-drawn and well-acted (The Sacrament standout Gene Jones is also part of the ensemble) enough to keep us involved, waiting to see who will turn on whom next and how the volatile and potentially violent situation will work itself out. There’s a climactic revelation that isn’t quite airtight in terms of plausibility, and will no doubt strike some as sending the wrong message, but up until then, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek successfully fulfills the ambition of many a crime drama: It keeps us watching, on the screen, people we’d never want to meet in real life.