' ' Cinema Romantico: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Monday, April 01, 2019

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

The inciting incident in “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is a mass shooting at a police funeral, never seen, only heard eerily from a distance. Yet the eponymous standoff does not involve the police and the shooter but the all-male members of a northern Michigan militia group who convene in their warehouse headquarters immediately after this shooting happens. Though the door is secured with a code panel which only they know, one of their AR-15 rifles and a Kevlar vest have gone missing, suggesting one of their own did it. But who? Ah, that’s the question, one rendering “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” as something akin to Agatha Christie with a white nationalist bent. And while budget limitations likely forced writer/director Henry Dunham to employ this one-location set-up, he does an exemplary job of weaving that limited locale into the narrative’s already conspicuous topicality. Alas, he can’t cover for his limitations the entire time, and the conclusion, where more visual ingenuity might have done to truly add an exclamation point, falls back on Private Investigator Martin Arbogast-ish clarification.

As soon as it becomes clear what they’re up against, with police no doubt scouring the countryside for all known militia, Ford (Chris Mulkey), the group’s terse leader, tasks Gannon (James Badge Dale), an ex-police interrogator, with ferreting out which member carried out the shooting since none will confess, setting up a series of questions and answers uncovering backstory and elucidating theme. This becomes the best trick that Dunham pulls even if the character details too frequently feel wanting, like Keating (Robert Aramayo) the mute who eventually won’t shut up carrying a copy of “The Catcher and the Rye”, which seems so quirkily off the shelf I kept waiting for Dunham to send it up. Still, without spoiling an early twist, reasons are given for Gannon to possibly have his own motivations, and Dale keeps us guessing in a slow-burning performance that feels like it’s hiding something. Near the end when his character gets a big confessional, I half-thought, and still do, he might have been making the whole thing up.

Nearly the entire film is cloaked in shadows, a means, perhaps, to obscure the similarity of the warehouse location, even when switching rooms, but also a figurative means to demonstrate how the characters are being kept in the dark about the apparently escalating white nationalist uprising in the outside world. If they are kept in the dark, however, so are we, rarely omniscient so that we are always guessing at least a little, even regards to an early twist I will refrain from revealing that shades Gannon’s cross-examining motivations. At the same time, alas, these deliberately darkened rooms limit our glimpses of this militiamen world. We never quite get to know principally why they exist and what their aims are, leaving you to wonder why all these rather disloyal militiamen are friends in the first place. The film being swathed in darkness only reinforces these blank spots, making the warehouse feel more like a stage and the rifles and water jugs like props.

Then again, this palpable antipathy for one another and ersatz aesthetic also aids the point to which Dunham builds. The interrogations that Gannon conducts blur the line between confessions and coercions, and each character monologue these interrogations eventually render blurs the line between reality and mere deep-seated desires. And if the concluding twist feels as much like button-pushing as a re-leveling of the playing field, likely to stoke America’s of the moment divide, it also intrinsically suggests the war each of them professes to be fighting only exists in their heads.

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