TIFF’s Midnight Madness programmer Peter Kuplowsky spent the week hyping up writer-director Henry Dunham‘s feature debut The Standoff at Sparrow Creek with comparisons to Reservoir Dogs, thus doing it no favors. Sure, both movies are largely set in a single location, where men spend several hours pointing fingers at each other, trying to figure out which one of them doesn’t belong, but Sparrow Creek is no Reservoir Dogs, so adjust your expectations accordingly. Nevertheless, this is a more-than-satisfying genre film thanks to a clever, last-minute twist — just one of the ways in which it distinguishes itself from just another Quentin Tarantino knock-off, as it has been dismissed in some critical corners.
Produced by Dallas Sonnier‘s Cinestate and XYZ Films (among others), the movie stars James Badge Dale as a former police profiler who is a member of a local militia that has powerful semi-automatic weapons at its disposal. When word spreads among the group that a lone gunman has opened fire upon mourners at a police funeral, they quickly deduce that the shooter must be among them, and the profiler is chosen to investigate the incident, which has the potential to jeopardize the entire militia, given its sizable armory. After all, this was a police funeral, and there are a lot of dead cops. Whoever did it isn’t going to get a fair trial, they’re just going to be tortured before they disappear. So there’s a lot at stake here. Was it the ex-Aryan Nation member? The young mute? Or perhaps it’s the undercover cop (just in case you need another nod to Reservoir Dogs)?
For the next few hours, accusations fly back and forth as Dale sizes up his fellow militia men, believing each interrogation can only have one of two outcomes: confession or denial. It’s safe to say the screenplay is the real star here, as the dialogue-driven film manages to sustain its narrative tension and makes the most of its late-in-the-game twist, which I’ll humbly admit I did not see coming. Had it not stuck the landing, I could see myself looking back on Sparrow Creek a lot less fondly, but as it stands, I feel comfortable recommending it to patient viewers. To me, the reward was worth the wait, but your mileage may vary there. If nothing else, the cast keeps the material compelling, even as Dale’s investigation threatens to become tedious despite the film’s relatively brief running time of 84 minutes (sans credits).
This is a seven-man ensemble, and Dale is joined by Chris Mulkey (Twin Peaks 1990), Patrick Fischler (Twin Peaks 2017), Brian Geraghty (The Hurt Locker), Robert Aramayo (Game of Thrones), Happy Anderson (Bright) and Gene Jones (The Sacrament). If anyone stands out, it’s Anderson, who is no stranger to thriving under interrogation, having played serial killer Jerome Brudos on the first season of Mindhunter. Aramayo also makes a good impression. As for Dale, he’s solid as the lead here, and has been a dependable performer ever since his turn on 24, which was 15 years ago. Having said that, part of me still thinks he works better as a character actor in support. Think The Departed, The Grey, Shame and Flight. He plays second fiddle in another Toronto film, Hold the Dark, and he just seems better suited for those kinds of roles. There’s really no shame in it, and he’s still rather underrated in that regard as well.
For a movie set at a lumber warehouse, Dunham and cinematographer Jackson Hunt (also making his feature debut) offer some stunning shots, including lots of wide angles that use shadow and light to really capture the intensity of the scene. In the physical sense, the actual standoff at Sparrow Creek only last a few minutes, but you could also consider each interrogation a standoff on its own — two militia men staring each other down, weighing what the other is capable of.
RLJ Entertainment acquired The Standoff at Sparrow Creek during the fest, and while some were overheard complaining about the pace and how talky it is for a movie about a militia, I think this one could develop a nice little cult following. It’s not the next Reservoir Dogs, but as far as slow-burn indies go, this puppy has got some bite to match its non-stop barking.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not currently have a release date.