Here’s a little movie by first-time director Henry Dunham about a militia. What do we know about militias? They’re more or less constitutional as (voluntary) fail-safes to ensure tyrants don’t take over America.
They’ve gotten a bad name over the years, portrayed by the press as, generally speaking, a motley crew of crackpots, conspiracy theorists, Soldier-of-Fortune-magazine-reading survivalists, wannabe military tough guys, and so on. Furthermore, as not too bright, low-income, rural, and susceptible to white-supremacist leanings. Some say the current administration is to blame for their resurgence. Some say it started with the Obama administration.
Is all that true? Are Americans dumb? Rather doubtful. America’s still the greatest nation on the planet in many regards, and we didn’t get here by being collectively stupid. Granted, we may be slowly turning stupid. Or in the process of getting smart again.
And so while “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is too dimly lit, too low budget, and too devoid of a good tension-generating soundtrack to claim that rookie director Dunham knocked one out of the park on his first try, what he did accomplish is making an excellent conversation-starter movie.
It kicks off with militiaman Gannon (James Badge Dale), who’s also an ex-cop, hearing distant, full-automatic AR-15 gunfire outside his trailer in the night. When he steps indoors and checks his police scanner, he hears staticky reports of a mass shooting—at a cop funeral, no less—with many men down.
This causes the head of his militia (Chris Mulkey) to call an immediate all-hands meeting at headquarters: a remote lumber warehouse. As members arrive one by one, each adding a puzzle piece or two of info, a picture starts to form, which is basically that the local cops think a militia is responsible.
The members are Beckmann (Patrick Fischler), geek-smart and preachy; the big, world-weary Hubbel (Gene Jones); Morris (Happy Anderson), an even bigger, former white supremacist; the 23-year-old Keating (Robert Aramayo), who’s apparently mute; and Noah (Brian Geraghty), an undercover cop.
When they do a weapons-cache check and discover one of their AR-15s is missing, Gannon, who had been a top interrogator on his force, is recruited to question all the members, so they don’t all hang.
A series of interrogations follows, while Beckmann, manning the scanner, keeps hearing similar reports, occurring all across the country. Which makes their particular situation appear either 1) to have generated a series of copycat crimes, or 2) they’re in the middle of nationwide, cop-killing purge.
The interrogations are well-written, and cat-and-mouse riveting. Dale’s been playing savvy military and law enforcement types since his stint (2003–2004) on TV’s “24,” so he’s good at bringing realism to such scenes.
His interrogatees are very game in their comebacks, especially the one who would appear to turn the tables on Gannon, with scary-smart repartee reminiscent of the crux scenes of 1988’s “Talk Radio.”
Ultimately, it’s a hard whodunit to figure out. For me, that is. There have been movies where I needed three viewings to figure out the plot, whereas on the fourth viewing, with, say, an ex-girlfriend, who after five minutes of her first viewing would predict the ending with 100 percent accuracy. Hyper-shrewd plot-precognition is a talent I don’t have. But I think most viewers will find it pleasingly challenging to disentangle and won’t see the end coming.
But that’s all by the way. The rest of the movie’s shortcomings—the lack of music, the neophyte directing, and the actors delivering their dialogue (at least at the beginning) like high school kids waiting for their cues—these are also all by the way.
Doesn’t Matter Whodunit
As I mentioned, the main draw of this movie is its timeliness. America’s police force is not popular; militias are on the rise, mass shootings have become ho-hum occurrences, and America’s love affair with gun culture is being foundationally shaken by questions of gun control, access, and the arming of schoolteachers.
Dunham doesn’t morally pontificate. He just tells us a low-key, albeit dramatic (not mutually exclusive here), realistic story of a day in the life of a militia. Usually these stories are on the florid scale of a Ruby Ridge or a Waco.
All the men are suspect, except Gannon, and we naturally root for him to get to the bottom of all this. But while his interrogations overturn stones under which crawl resentment and hatred of law enforcement by violent men, none of that brands them as automatically guilty. And their intelligence and well thought-out stances will make you realize you needed to check your stereotyping and mob-justice mentality at the door.
It’s currently complicated out there in the American hinterlands: Paranoia runs rampant. What if more MS-13 gang members keep proliferating in our small towns? You want them around your teenage daughter? What about all those cop killings? Is state tyranny in the offing? Why is white supremacy membership up? Can teachers really be trained to teach algebra and handle a combat situation? Does all this add up to a situation where you don’t mind if your gun is taken away? To stockpile AR-15s, or not to stockpile them—that is the question.
Film Review: ‘The Standoff at Sparrow Creek’
Director: Henry Dunham
Starring: James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson, Robert Aramayo, Gene Jones
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Release Date: Jan. 18
Rated 3 stars out of 5