Henry Dunham’s The Standoff At Sparrow Creek celebrated its US premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Fest, stunning and disarming every single person in attendance. At least, I assume it did because I stumbled out of the theater in a daze, unable to even formulate words. Like the first time I saw Chinatown or Blow Out, the final moments of The Standoff At Sparrow Creek are a powerful punch in the gut that left me completely speechless.
The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is an impressively strong debut from Dunham who builds, and controls tension masterfully. The titular “standoff” is a loaded gun pointed directly at the audience like the sword of Damocles that hangs over the film’s cast. At any time, hell might come knocking and these men are ready for a war a never wanted to fight, but spent their entire lives preparing to win. Sparrow Creek builds toward a chaotic ending that feels less and less preventable as the minutes go by. It’s an end that the men morbidly look forward to, as though it were their duty to carry out a suicide mission and martyr themselves against their own fears. That fear becomes more and more relatable as their paranoia seeps through the screen, infecting you like an airborn pathogen. The tension of The Standoff At Sparrow Creek chains you to your seat, unable to escape, until the credits roll and you see that the chains were never really there, and all that held you was a mania of your own making.
“The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is a brilliantly suspenseful film […] you’ll feel your heart pounding like someone is trying to burst through your chest with a battering ram.”
On a quiet night, the members of a small militia are called together after a mass shooting in their area has resulted in the deaths of several police officers. Within twenty minutes, all members of the militia converge on their lumber yard / bunker to cover their tracks and make sure no fingers can be pointed in their direction. Everyone seems to have a solid alibi but when they discover one of their automatic rifles missing from the inventory, it becomes very apparent that someone in the group is the gunman. No one wants to take responsibility for the shooting and knowing the police would be more than happy to prosecute the entire group, the senior members to action to sniff out the lone madman behind the attack. Should be easy, but each of these men fit the profile of a radicalized, domestic terrorist and time is already running out.
Gannon (James Badge Dale), a former policeman turned reclusive militiaman, is charged with interrogating each member of the group individually. One by one, Gannon sits down to get answers out these men who very clearly want nothing to do with an authoritarian system. They are paranoid, hell bent on protecting their vision of Freedom, and do not respond well to any line of questioning. As the situation outside escalates, the walls surrounding them begin to close in. As tensions reach a boiling point, the militia are soon as the throats of one another, a military grade arsenal of weapons at their disposal.
The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is a brilliantly suspenseful film that is every bit a modern noir as Drive or Under The Silver Lake. I can’t remember the last time a film had me so breathless, so effortlessly. Sure, A Quiet Place comes to mind but Sparrow Creek achieves a striking level of heart-pounding dread with just a few lines of dialogue and the sense that a clock, somewhere off camera, is counting down to destruction. That clock is hard-wired to your senses, and as it’s tick-tock-tick-tock speeds closer to detonation, you’ll feel your heart pounding like someone is trying to burst through your chest with a battering ram.
Driven almost entirely by dialogue and quiet glances, the film hinges on spowerhouse performances from everyone involved. Even before were are told about these character’s pasts we understand the quiet, controlled intensity that burns inside them. James Badge Dale, who is featured in 3 great films at this year’s Fantastic Fest, is whatever person he needs to a be at a given moment. He is manipulative, caring, and unpredictable. Chris Mulkey (The Purge) portrays a brash shoot-first-ask-quenstions-later leader, and Happy Anderson (Mindhunter) has quickly become the quintessential, “Oh, you think you know me, do ya?” interrogation subject. There is no fault in any performances, and each are framed so perfectly in dim, harsh lighting as they tower over the entire film.
“The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is 90 minutes of unfiltered anxiety”
Like any good horror movie, the suspense in Sparrow Creek is built on the threat of what might happen. The climax is a threat the movie promises to make good on, inching closer and closer to disaster with every character reveal. Everyone of these men is capable of the accusations thrown at them, and if pushed to the breaking point, more than willing to return to that fury. In my memory, the film exists in classic black and white but only because that darkness we trudge toward overshadows the entire film. The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is 90 minutes of unfiltered anxiety. It’s simple, straightforward, and tough as nails. DO NOT forget to take your heart medication before seeing this film.
Henry Dunham’s The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is a production of Cinestate (Brawl in Cell Block 99, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich) and XYZ Films (Mandy, Mom And Dad), and distributed by RLJ Entertainment. The film celebrated its US premiere at the 2018 Fantastic Film Festival September 22nd. set. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!