I find the American militia movement fascinating. Sure, we have some folks here in the United Kingdom who would sooner immerse their face in a deep fat fryer than trust anything the government tells them, but they have no discernible organisation. Angry dudes stockpiling weapons and fraternising around their mutual objectives of maximised individual freedom, hatred of the tax system and paranoid survivalism is nothing short of terrifying, and this particular offshoot of paramilitary action is in no way helped by its trenchant association with sinister far-right politics. Aside from the likes of Arlington Road, Bowling for Columbine and other works that have touched on the cases of Randy Weaver, Timothy McVeigh and David Koresh, this brand of conspiracy-minded sovereign citizenry has been given little exposure in the arts.
In 2018, neophyte director Henry Dunham followed up his acclaimed 2014 sci-fi short The Awareness with his feature-length debut The Standoff at Sparrow Creek. A closed circle mystery predicated on this same troubling sociopolitical phenomenon, it is an underrated picture notable for a sharp and original script, very strong performances, intelligent use of minimal settings and a ceaseless sense of paranoia and menace.
Gannon (James Badge Dale) is a former police officer now living in a secluded trailer. One night after a good day’s hunting, he is at home tucking into his kill when he hears distant gunfire and explosions. Tuning into a police scanner, Gannon hears something about ‘multiple officers down’ and promptly receives a phone call instructing him to drive to a nearby warehouse. It transpires that this is the HQ of a well-armed militia that Gannon joined after leaving the force and he is there to convene with six other members, all of them having heard the same cop broadcast. It is quickly established that somebody has committed a massacre at a police funeral using a semi-automatic rifle and grenades, everyone in an understandable panic when the authorities announce that the culprit was a ‘militia man’.
Finding a bulk of their arsenal missing, the group realise that one of them is the shooter and are informed by leader Ford (Chris Mulkey) that none of them are leaving until they’ve been interrogated by Gannon and the perpetrator has been fished out to hand over to the police. Aside from Ford, the other members are Morris (Happy Anderson), a hulking and uber-hostile white supremacist, highly-strung communications geek Beckmann (Patrick Fischler), young mute Keating (Robert Aramayo), slightly mad old coot Hubbel (Gene Jones) and the sketchy Noah (Brian Geraghty). Over the course of the night, tension and distrust permeate the air as accusations are thrown, lies are told and dangerous solutions are posited. Gannon may end up cracking the case and neutralising this powder keg of suspicion…or he may end up never going home alive.
As you may know if you’ve read some of my other reviews, I adore pictures that draw a maximal potential from economic scripts. Dialogue-driven pieces that are confined to tiny settings, if they’re done right, are more intellectually and emotionally stimulating than the great bulk of mega-budget, over-exposed blockbusters as far as I’m concerned, and Sparrow Creek carries this kind of thing in spades. From the first scene of nightfall and the harsh lights within the group’s labyrinthine and sinister headquarters, we’re well aware that we’re in for a grim ride. Dale arguably delivers his greatest performance yet as Gannon, a tough and reticent man who left one side of the law for the other (although militias typically view themselves as the utmost constitutional embodiment of authority) and now finds himself in the company of some very unpredictable and unsympathetic men.
The narrative is predicated on some effective surprises so I can’t divulge too much, but what can be said is how magnetic the work is in its depiction of antisocial personalities who are neither shown as caricatural monsters nor clumsily lionised badasses, and it’s this authentic middle ground in characterisation that fortifies the sense of unease. Every member of this crew conveys themselves as someone who doesn’t like the average human being very much, adding a subtler dimension of mystery to the focal puzzle that Gannon has been tasked with solving.
As in the works of Mamet, you’re never entirely sure if the little information that a character offers of themselves is even halfway true, and the film makes a smart move in deviating from commonly-held stereotypes of people who would join such an organisation. The militia head Ford is quietly intimidating and cements himself as someone not to be crossed, but his demeanour is more akin to a terse and jaded office boss than your mental picture of a deranged, arms-loving bumpkin. Whenever Gannon thinks he has narrowed it down, some card appears from some sleeve to display that he is actually dealing with a few sharper-than-average tools, the script all the while offering some fine-drawn commentary on extremes in American political and sociological thinking.
With Jackson Hunt’s cinematography deftly immersing proceedings in a muted apocalyptic dread that is uniformly bolstered by a lack of musical score, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek eschews extreme violence and lurid simplicities to deliver us a tightly-acted and nuanced examination of America’s relationship with its Second Amendment, paranoia and honour. If you’re in the mood for a shrewd and intense ride, this independent gem deserves wider exposure and is well worth your time.