Review: The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

PLOT: After a mass shooting at a police funeral, the members of a heavily armed militia realize that the weapons used in the massacre were taken from their stockpile. In the hopes of preventing an investigation into their activities, the men gather together in their lumber mill headquarters to dig-up the culprit before it’s too late.

REVIEW: THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK hails from Dallas Sonnier’s Cinestate, a company known for genre fare that, for the most part, is politically troubling, but also, more-often-than-not, impeccably made. S. Craig Zahler is their main guy, with BONE TOMAHAWK, BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 and the upcoming DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE generating lots of press for their perceived right-leaning politics, but also the fact that the movies themselves are so damned good even those of us who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum can’t help but watch and enjoy.

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THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK, which premiered in the fall at TIFF, doesn’t hail from Zahler, but it’s another of their slick efforts. Eschewing carnage for a low-key, chamber-drama style approach, this was a bizarre choice to play as part of the Midnight Madness selection, but the audience was apparently quite receptive (I saw it as a decidedly lower-key press screening).

Originally titled MILITIA (a far more provocative title), the film offers the excellent James Badge Dale a rare chance at playing a lead. Here, he’s a reclusive former cop who’s somehow found himself as a trusted member of a heavily armed militia. Quiet and introspective, he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d be easy to recruit for such a group, but when weapons and armor go missing, they give him carte blanche to interrogate the rest of the group so they can find the culprit before the vengeful police find them.

While a distinctly all-white, all-male group – as usual for a militia- writer-director Henry Dunham stops short of portraying them as fanatical. Racist rhetoric is mostly absent, with the common thing being their intense dislike of cops – giving Dale’s character plenty of suspects to work his way through. It’s the fact that they’re portrayed in a three-dimensional way that will put the film under a microscope, as will an unexpected ending that, as usual for a Cinestate film, makes you question which way they lean politically. After watching their distasteful PUPPET MASTER: THE LITTLEST REICH, I swore I was done with them, but THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is a much better film.

The set-up lends itself pretty well to a contained drama that’s essentially just men talking with no action, thanks mainly to the terrific performances. Dale is great, if again, too sane to be believable as a nutso-militia man. The others are more akin to what you’d think of a militiaman as being, such as the old salt played by Gene Jones who initially seems reasonable until all of a sudden launching into a monologue that suggests he may be the most dangerous of them all. One common militia “type” is the quiet, silent youngster, Robert Aramayo’s Keating, who seems plucked from an INCEL chatroom and is the one everyone’s sure has done it, but the film is never as predictable as that.

Too bad then that the film goes awry in the last act, when a subplot involving an undercover cop (NOT Dale – and someone who’s revealed very early on) hones in and makes the film a little more by-the-numbers, leading to an extended flashback for Dale that rings false to everything we know about the character up to this point. By the end, it gets a little too clever for its own good, but for the most part, this eighty-eight-minute thriller is a nail-biter. Again, this is a Cinestate film so if you go in, do so with your eyes open and expect some uncomfortable undertones that may or may not be sincere. It’s hard to tell with their stuff, but the fact remains, most of their movies are pretty damn good. While this isn’t on par with what Zahler’s put out, THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is another top-notch programmer and worth checking out.