What is the point of militias? Intellectually I understand them, they are outlets for paranoia, outrage, reactionary politics, and blunt power fantasies. But what goals do they actually hope to achieve. Would they actually want an apocalypse or military coup to justify their actions, even if their groups would most certainly be eliminated as quickly as any other. I guess the heart of the matter is a nihilistic fantasy. That only you and the few people you trust have the power and authority to enact what is right.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, the feature debut of writer and director Henry Dunham, serves as quasi-dissection of the concept of militias, and comes to the conclusion that despite the posturing and legitimate threats, they are weak organizations that can be easily consumed by the paranoia and fear that created them.
The story here is part Reservoir Dogs, part Breaking Bad, and part courtroom drama. There’s been a shooting at a police funeral. Heard first in the distance as hollow gunshots than confirmed over a police scanner. The members of a local militia hole up in their warehouse HQ to confirm that none of them committed the crime. Things turn ugly when one of their weapons is missing, and the investigation to find who in the militia is the shooter begins.
Spearheading the hunt is Gannon (James Badge Dale) a traumatized ex-cop who’s left the life of gang infiltration for an isolated existence in the woods. He has one true lead, which is that Noah (Brian Geraghty) can’t be the shooter because he’s an undercover detective keeping tabs on the group. So Gannon turns interrogator to sniff out the rat among his midst while also protecting Noah as the other members have their suspicions heightened.
As he cycles through the likely suspects he digs into the reasoning that the members have for joining a militia. The police wronged them, it’s the only place someone can be isolated and socialize at the same time, resentment for authority. As the interviews continue we look into a group of people who are simply trying to rationalize their hate and anger, they want both purpose and absolution for their cruelness and bigotry.
Dunham writes and directs these conversations with a terse and confident hand, avoiding the flowery language of Tarantino for the more restrained directness of something like Mamet. He keeps the look of the film inky and gross, frequently shooting scenes in dark rooms with single light sources casting long shadows and making menacing silhouettes. When lights do come on they are sickly fluorescents, casting the empty warehouse rooms in sallow palls. All of this ugliness is caught in elegant wide screen frames, emphasizing the towering space and small corridors that these men inhabit.
Unfortunately the story hits a major speed bump in the third act as Gannon starts to interrogate a hyper-intellectual college dropout character. He comes off as such a caricature that it immediately unbalances the film’s rather delicate tone before that has been established. He’s written as such a hacky know-it-all that it’s hard to believe in any of the actions he takes later. It’s a cheap bit of theater that distracts from the film’s stronger moments.
The story mostly recovers with a smartly staged climax that incorporates many of the visual cues that the movie has built up over its slim run time. And the conclusion it comes to is clever in recognizing that posing with strength doesn’t cover up weaknesses. However I feel obliged to mention that this flick is pretty drenched in conservative ideology, indulging in some cop worship and justifying of the gun toting zealots. But if your willing to go along with these thematic concerns you’ll find an exciting and taught thriller on the other side.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is playing in theater in limited release and available to rent or buy on VOD.