Fantastic Fest Review: Henry Dunham's 'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 23, 2018
A little Reservoir Dogs, a touch of Fail Safe, and a heaping dose of 2nd Amendment commentary at its core, writer/director Henry Dunham for his feature debut delivers a tightly constructed and incredibly intense thriller in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. Packed with sharp dialogue, intriguing characters through and through, and masterful performances from a slate of very talented, character actors, the film builds mystery as well as any, modern whodunit on its surface-level. Underneath, though, Dunham's The Standoff at Sparrow Creek brings with it a mountain of ideas, most of them fervently politically-charged and more than appropriate in the 2018 climate of gun rights debates and continual, mass shootings.
The film begins with the distant sounds of rapid-fire shots from a machine gun. Someone has opened fire on the funeral for a slain police officer killing several and escaping undetected. Members of a local militia, panicking at the thought someone from their party may be to blame, quickly organize at their warehouse. Here they store several AR-15 assault rifles, an abundance of Kevlar vests, and a wide assortment of arms, all ready and waiting for the moment that tips the debates over into violence.
The thing is, one of their AR-15s is now missing, as are a few of their vests and several grenades. It becomes apparent very quickly to the seven men that one of them has taken it upon himself to act out against the police force, and the men begin conducting various interrogation tactics on each other to weed out which of them is to be turned over to the police. Naturally, nothing goes as planned for them, and, when word begins trickling in that other militias across the country have begun to attack police stations, the answers with which they're seeking become a life-and-death matter.
A first-time filmmaker, Henry Dunham shows absolutely zero signs of being green or amateurish in the handling of his various characters. Each of the men is naturally fleshed out, their background seeping into the story through the interrogations and interactions they have with one another. Dunham's dialogue is the biggest gift on hand in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, each man providing a unique voice and perspective on the situation at hand as well as the bigger picture. It also keeps you guessing, as well, to anyone's exact motivation. Each man holds a secret even though their politics have brought them together as a group.
Dunham, seemingly falling on the left side of politics, himself, does a masterful job not showing his own, personal thoughts on the subject. He does a superb job letting each character have their say allowing us an in to the inner workings of each man's stance and viewpoints. It's most certainly a politically charged story Dunham is telling, but it forces the viewer to answer the questions rather than telling us how to think.
While taking place in the single location of the warehouse is an obvious choice for a first-time director (see Reservoir Dogs), Dunham shows a confident hand in his camera movement. The walls of the warehouse serve to tighten the claustrophobic nerves, and, even when the "action" moves to the exteriors, the darkness of the night surrounding them still seems to be locking them in. This all serves the intensity that ratchets up until the film's thrilling, final moments when all is revealed, the conclusion once again asking questions it doesn't dare believe it has the authority to answer. It's also an ending that delivers an organic twist Dunham successfully keeps you from guessing beforehand.
The stellar ensemble cast is doing masterful work, as well, here, with James Badge Dale leading the way as a former police officer who is tasked with interrogating other men. Dale's naturalness is unquestionable, and, even though you're pretty sure he isn't the culprit that set things in motion, the ambiguity he lays out for the character does wonders in keeping the mystery alive.
Dunham's The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a superbly fleshed out mystery that uses verbal jabs instead of flying bullets to get its point across. The film does eventually allow the bullets to fly, but Dunham's firm hand on the subject matter only lets things turn to that when it is absolutely necessary. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is more interested in the debate than the standoff, and it ends up being an absolute banger of intensity that draws you in, forces you to ask the questions, and leaves you with your own viewpoints. It is a solidly suspenseful debut from a filmmaker who is sure to impress in the years to come.
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