The Standoff at Sparrow Creek
It’s impossible not to think of Reservoir Dogs while watching The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. Safe to assume that’s deliberate. Debuting writer/director Henry Dunham clearly hopes that his claustrophobic stage-play-as-movie will garner similar barnstorming acclaim through its talky thrills and constant threat of violence.
The themes are relevant. The acting is excellent. Something about the movie just doesn’t hang together as well as it should. Though expertly crafted, the flick never quite delivers on the promised explosions from its endless escalation of suspense. On that level, it might not have been a good idea to draw such overt comparisons to one of the finest directorial debuts in memory.
The film takes place on a long, cold night. A police funeral was attacked by a lone gunman and the members of a local militia gather in state of mild panic. One of their assault rifles is missing and was used in the attack. That means the terrorist is one of their own. Since they’re all members of a gun militia with hopes and dreams of bringing down the government, it could be any one of them.
James Badge Dale’s ex-cop is the first member whose guilt is dismissed, so he kicks off a long and lonely interrogation of the rest of the members of his gun-toting clubhouse. Tensions run high. The threat of violence hangs over the space like grim death. To make matters worse, their monitored police radio reveals the attack has sparked off dozens of copycat events around the country, making everyone in the rusted-out building potential fall guys for an attack of unprecedented scale.
If nothing else, Dunham arrives to filmmaking with a masterly sense of how to compose and structure a movie. Finding an evocative single location and milking it for all that its worth, the filmmaker creates a beautifully bleak vision for his feature. It’s an ugly, shadowy and unforgiving place populated exclusively by battered men with questionable motivations.
The cast is excellent, ranging from veteran character actors like Patrick Fischler and Chris Mulkey to newcomers who gamely stand next to them and lean into prolonged acting competitions. The script is clever, filled with unexpected twists and wise social observations. It’s a crackerjack little thriller that uses its limited resources so damn well that you’d never guess it was such a tiny production.
Why doesn’t it work as well as it should? The biggest problem is the lack of payoff. The film so clearly builds up to standoffs and shootouts that the climax needed to be explosive, and Dunham just doesn’t quite have the resources or ambition to deliver on that promise. The movie can feel like a slow walk to nowhere, even if the final twists of the plot are just cynical and insightful enough to prevent the whole project from derailing. The quiet tension of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek might be impressive, but a little more release would have been nice.