A mean little locked-room mystery whose political implications are more complicated even than they may appear, Henry Dunham's The Standoff at Sparrow Creek sets members of a self-styled militia against each other, trying to figure out which one of them just initiated a war with local cops. Even without the strength of its character-actor cast, the warehouse-set drama would attract Reservoir Dogs comparisons; though neither as twisty nor as satisfying as that film, this debut shows pulpy promise and is a step ahead of its genre peers.
Gannon (James Badge Dale) is an ex-cop loner who, since leaving the force (for reasons intentionally left unsaid), has joined up with a crew of men who intend to be ready once societal decay turns violent. (Again, the nature of the apocalypse they're planning for is unstated, if they even know. But their talk suggests they've long been expecting police to be their enemy.)
Alone one night in his isolated RV, Gannon hears automatic weapons in the distance. He grabs a police scanner and hears reports of trouble, then gets the call he expects: Time to meet at his group's HQ, the lumber warehouse where they hide a sizable arsenal.
Members arrive one by one, each with a fresh bit of information. The shooting was an attack on a cop's funeral; the lone killer had AR-15s and grenades; he's assumed to belong to a local militia (of which there are several). Obviously, it's time to prepare to stand their ground. But when apparent leader Ford (Chris Mulkey) gets the men to the armory, one of the group's own AR-15s is missing. The shooter is one of us, he declares — and if he can be caught and handed over to authorities, maybe disaster can be averted.
This is one of those paradoxes in which organs of the government are deeply mistrusted, but experience in law enforcement or the military is valued. Ford realizes that Gannon is best equipped to interrogate their comrades; so while key suspects may disagree, he's going to run the show — at least for a while. Dunham splits the characters up into different parts of this industrial building, keeping both camera angles and lighting levels low.
His dialogue is hard-bitten, if less tangy than Tarantino's and less eager to play for a laugh. The script's one-on-one confrontations make good showcases for actors (like Patrick Fischler and Robert Aramayo) who either are or soon should be welcomed by moviegoers whenever they pop up in a cast.
A movie about paranoiacs wouldn't feel right if its investigation moved in a straight line from question to answer, and Dunham teases to good effect, reminding us of the pitfalls of high-pressure interrogations. Adding to that pressure is news, being called in from other survivalist groups, that they're being raided by the government. Are we witnessing the start of a civil war? The action on the fringes of some doomsday scenario? Or just the last gasp of a certain breed of American pseudo-patriot?
An awareness of real-world events — from the Branch Davidian compound to the Bundy standoff — crackles between the lines here, but Dunham isn't out to make a point, pro or con. The characters he draws are deliberately varied, blowing off some preconceptions viewers may have about survivalist types without stretching things for the sake of it. While some in the audience will have an idea where things should go as soon as they get a handle on the premise, Sparrow Creek avoids taking a too-easy stand, even after all the bullet casings have hit the ground.