In 1995, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was wrongly tied to the Michigan Militia. This brought to the public eye a right wing movement that began to grow exponentially in the early ’90s following the FBI shootout with Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge and the government siege of David Koresh’s compound in Waco, Texas. Essentially a citizen’s army, militias—while sanctioned by law—were uncontrolled by government. Their intent is to protect U.S. citizens if the government were ever became tyranical. While not inherently criminal in their formation, the militia movement and its ideology does appeal to second amendment fanatics, doomsday preppers, and unhinged conspiracy theorists. Cinestate’s THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK takes place in this world, and is a taut paranoid drama, dialogue heavy and engaging.
From its minimalist opening credits, SPARROW CREEK evokes a stark sense of dread. On a cold night in northern Michigan, local militia member and ex-police Gannon (James Badge Dale) hears the news over his police scanner that there has been an assault at a police funeral. A lone gunman fired into a crowd with seriously heavy artillery and is now on the loose. Gannon and his associates—knowing that the police will see militia members as their prime suspects—converge on their headquarters at the Sparrow Creek lumber yard to suss things out. The crew has a stockpile of weapons and supplies and when it’s revealed that one of their AR-15 machine guns has gone missing, Gannon and Ford (Chris Mulkey) launch an investigation into their own—and while the men discover that more attacks have begun happening across the U.S.—that reveals nothing is as it seems.
THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is essentially a “libertarian-sploitation” take on RESERVIOR DOGS. The company behind the picture—Dallas Sonnier’s Cinestate—is the same that released S. Craig Zahler’s BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99, and PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH. Later this year, the studio will be unleashing DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE which features the Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as crooked cop anti-heroes in Zahler’s latest crime thriller. There is a through line of right wing politics and edgelord, politically incorrect humor in the Cinestate ouveure. Sometimes it works, as in CELL BLOCK which truly feels like a lost drive in flick from another dimension, and sometimes it doesn’t as in the tone deaf LITTLEST REICH. SPARROW CREEK falls in line with the studio’s provocative sensibilities and nails tone and subtlely infuses right wing politics into the story.
SPARROW CREEK is a truly impressive feature debut for writer/director, Henry Dunham. While some audiences will immediately be able to sympathize with the more libertarian leanings of the characters, he’s also asking this on the left to open up their minds a bit. It’s a provocative move, but these characters are true anti-heroes and Dunham asks the audience to sympatize or empathize with these complicated characters. It makes for a more interesting experience when you have to spend time with characters who, more than likely, you wouldn’t be tossing a few beers back with anytime soon. Audiences are quick to empathize with vicious criminals or serial killers in film, but not those with politics that are not their own.
The costuming choices in the film are inspired. Gannon effortlessly falls into his role with his grey beard and worn in Carhart. There is a sense of authenticity that these characters.
If Dunham makes any missteps, its that he appears to assume that the audience understands the insular world of militia men (perhaps that’s the audience he’s aiming for) and doesn’t provide enough exposition in the film’s opening moments. On one hand he’s trusting the viewer, and at the same time, immediately kicking things off, which is appreciated but this writer would recommend doing some research into militias before diving into the film. That said, while the mystery of which member of the militia was the shooter sets the film in motion, it’s the interrogation scenes between Badge Dale’s Gannon and his associates that propels the film. There’s a rhythmic quality to the tough guy dialogue that at times recalls David Mamet and even Walter Hill. And while yes, the almost single location thriller could certainly work as a stage play, the way director Dunham expertly uses space, light, and darkness to engage the audience into this world. The way he shoots all the steel and concrete provides a sort of bleak, hyper-reality that at times, is positively gorgeous.
SPARROW CREEK offers plenty of twists and turns along the way—and even if some are far fetched—the film is totally and utterly compelling. The film’s final moments are going to leave audiences conflicted but will certainly lead to conversation. This is something all genre fans—particuarly those who dig drive-in trash from the ‘70s—have to reckon with. Films like SPARROW CREEK are comparable to the wave of vigilatnte opuses like DEATH WISH, VIGILANTE, and most of Charles Bronson’s Cannon output in some of their questionable politics, particuarly for someone who leans more liberal, left-wingers.