“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is a moody but engaging genre piece drenched in shadows and doubts. Focusing on a group of characters who happen to be cornered by their grim situation second and second, the movie slowly and deftly accumulates anxiety and suspense along its simple plot, and it is often quite compelling although it is occasionally limited by its thin narrative and broad characterization as well as its small budget.
In the beginning, we get to know a bit about how the characters of the film come to gather in a big lumber warehouse located at some remote spot. They are the key members of a local militia group, and they are all nervous because of a mass shooting incident which has just happened at the funeral of a dead cop. They heard that lots of people including a bunch of policemen attending the funeral were killed by an unidentified guy still on the run, and they worry about whether this terrible incident will lead to the police raid on their militia group.
And then their worst fear turns out to be true. Not long after their leader Ford (Chris Mulkey) arrives, they decide to remove every weapon they have hidden in the warehouse, and they soon discover that one of their several automated rifles is missing. Considering they are the only members who can access to a secret place where their weapons have been stored, it looks like that one of them is the guy the police are currently searching for, and it is pretty clear to everyone in the warehouse that they are really in a big trouble.
Determined to find the culprit as soon as possible, Ford orders Gannon (James Badge Dale) to investigate and interrogate other members mainly because Gannon once worked as a cop and seems to know well how to interrogate and then extract a confession. After checking the other members besides Ford, Gannon singles out Morris (Happy Anderson) and Keating (Robert Aramayo) as two most likely suspects, and then he proceeds to interrogate them alone respectively.
While mainly consisting of the verbal interactions among Gannon and other characters in the film, the movie seldom bores us as steadily building up the sense of isolation and paranoia around its characters. Many key scenes of the film are constantly shrouded in dark and gloomy atmosphere, and we cannot see the characters in the movie well at times, but this visual approach, which was probably necessitated by its small budget, further enhances the nervous uncertainty among them. Cinematographer Jackson Hunt did a good job of establishing the grim and anxious mood well on the screen, and he gives us several visually striking moments including the interrogation scene between Gannon and Morris, which is unfolded within a space looking relatively wider and brighter.
As talking with Morris during that interrogation scene, Gannon slyly induces Morris to let out his old grudges against the police, which naturally makes him one of two main suspects from the beginning. As they push and pull each other during their interrogation, the movie gradually dials up the level of suspense, and then there eventually comes a point where Morris comes to reveal more about himself than he wanted after pushed further and further by Gannon.
In contrast, Keating is a tougher opponent to crack. As your average disaffected lad (He has a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye”, for instance), he does not speak easily, so Gannon decides to take a different approach to this young man, but, as getting more frustrated and exasperated than expected, he subsequently finds himself losing the control of the situation between them, and that leads to one of a few violent moments in the film.
Meanwhile, as implied by the sound of a ticking clock on the soundtrack early in the movie, time is running out for everyone in the warehouse as things seem to get far worse outside. As one of them keeps trying to contact other local militia groups via radio communication, he hears about a string of violent incidents happening to the police, and it looks like that incident leads to what they have supposedly prepared for: total anarchy.
Except one flashback moment, the movie continues to focus firmly on its characters’ circumstance as before. There is a tense sequence where its characters must be both silent and watchful inside and around the warehouse, and there later comes a suspenseful scene involved with a certain member who turns out to have a secret behind his back.
I must point out that the movie does not provide much depth in terms of story and characters, but its cast members ably fill their archetype roles as required. While James Badge Dale, who has been one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood since his small but significant supporting role in “Flight” (2012), steadily holds the center, the other notable cast members including Chris Mulkey, Patrick Fischler, Gene Jones, and Brian Geraghty are solid on the whole, and Happy Anderson and Robert Aramayo have each own moment during their respective scenes with Dale.
“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is the first feature film directed by director/writer Harry Dunham. What he achieves here in this film looks modest on the surface, but his overall result shows his considerable skill and talent, and I guess we can have some expectation on what may come from him during next several years. It is still January, but this is surely one of interesting debut works of this year.