The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is the kind of feature-length debut that would never get distribution in theaters. In fact, it would likely fail in any sort of wide-release situation. It’s an artistically shot, patient drama about men thrust into a claustrophobic situation, trying to negotiate their way out of it as hidden motives gradually reveal themselves.
It is a slow-fuse, low-action, single-location dramatic thriller with gorgeous cinematography and stellar performances by a number of actors whose faces you recognize from dozens of bit parts but whose names you can’t quite place. There’s James Badge Dale from Iron Man 3 ,The Departed, Hold the Dark, Shame, World War Z and the AMC series Rubicon. Patrick Fischler from Mulholland Dr., Hail, Caesar!, Twin Peaks: The Return, Mad Men, Lost … the list goes on. Chris Mulkey ( who looks like a younger Chris Cooper and shows up pretty much everywhere), too. They star as members of a right-wing militia who congregate at their safe house / arsenal after a nearby massacre is pinned on a fellow militiaman. Upon inspecting their warehouse they find several missing items — an AR-15 assault rifle, Kevlar vests, explosives. The shooter escaped the scene. But all their members are present at the warehouse.
One of them did it. The trick is figuring out which of the seven men present is culpable. Or, at least, who will end up the scapegoat.
Gannon (Dale) is an ex-cop with a reputation for being an expert undercover agent and interrogator. He takes the lead in breaking down each member to figure out who did it – and his first step is to have every member toss their cellphones and anything traceable into the trash. They’re stuck in the warehouse together until the culprit is found, their only access to the outside world through a CB radio. As the night progresses they start to intercept transmissions about copycat police massacres. Their warehouse is home to simmering conflict, as the outside world seems similarly ripping itself apart. Time is of the essence.
I was reminded of Pontypool, a low-budget favorite about a zombie apocalypse unfolding outside of a radio station, told entirely from the claustrophobic perspective of the DJ in his booth. Standoff writer and director Henry Dunham uses every tool in his low-budget repertoire to make the slow-rolling disaster of Gannon’s long night feel apocalyptic, despite setting all the action inside a single warehouse with four rooms. The tension mounts inside and outside the building as men reveal backstories and allegiances that change the balance of power and introduce new lines of inquiry.
It’s the kind of movie that can go horribly wrong, particularly when a film like this tries to be too clever; comparisons to Reservoir Dogs are wrong in this case. It’s not uncommon for stories like this to try to ape that movie’s wit; there’s little wit or humor here. It’s all killer, low-filler tension and payoff. I’ve watched far too many direct-to-video and festival films that take a stab at this genre and fail so miserably that Standoff really, truly impressed me.
Two elements of the film truly set it apart from the rest: Dale’s performance and the film’s cinematography. With Gannon, we have a man whose weariness is visible on his face but whose secrets still surprise. Why is an ex-cop – an ex-undercover cop — a member of a far-right militia group? What disillusioned his faith in law enforcement? Gannon’s malice and nihilism comes from experience and never feels forced. Dunham winds the character tightly around the story he’s telling. It never goes too broad, and Dale makes Dunham’s ultimate political ruminations (how could you not, in a story about militias and police and their inherent brands of violence) land gracefully. It’s clear that Dunham sees militias and militarized police units as two sides of the same coin, and the currency is men’s attraction of fraternal organizations where violence is permissive and excuses to use it are sought after and ritualized.
Jackson Hunt’s cinematography is dark, with heavy shadows; it’s in color, but frequently feels monochrome. His approach to lighting his limited spaces makes the film feel larger than it actually is. Interrogation sequences are lit to expose only one half of the actor’s faces, shrouding them in the darkness of their surroundings. It’s hard not to just run down a list of cast and crew on IMDb and gush about their work; the editing by Josh Ethier gives a film with zero action some zing; the set decoration and costume design and art decoration by Winona Yu, Rachel Wilson and Jonathan Rudak all create an environment that feels natural and cold and lived-in. Nothing about Standoff feels cheap or underdeveloped. For a film this size, for a debut film even, it is really, truly impressive.
But given that size and the relatively B-grade cast (who all give A-level performances), there’s no way The Standoff at Sparrow Creek would ever be a big draw at the multiplex. It is what it is. It’s going to be made available for streaming on January 14th, 2019 from RLJE entertainment. I hope it does well. If you’re looking for a movie that proves there are still interesting indie films with compelling stories, tension and production values, get to it.