The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is an immensely frustrating movie, one of the most spectacular examples of narrative blue-balling ever committed to film. Before I get into detailing the heinous stupidity of this film, I’ll be fair and note that it’s the first movie by writer-director Henry Dunham, and it’s easy to see how some of the faults here could be the freshman follies of someone struggling with a strong creative vision on one hand and a smearily printed list of Tips for Making Your First Thriller on the other. Despite everything I’m about to say, I’m actually reasonably interested in what Dunham will go on to do next.
But this is perhaps one of the dumbest thrillers in existence, with its lack of logic and total misunderstanding of human behavior made worse by its gray seriousness and its utter waste of a compelling premise.
The following will contain comprehensive spoilers.
It takes a while for The Standoff at Sparrow Creek to actually reveal its true nature, as though it has killed a better film and donned its skin as a disguise that it will later drop at a strategic moment. Initially, most of this is pretty good, and it’s pretty good in the stripped-down, limited-budget, plotty, high-tension way you no longer see all that often. The film centers on ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale, who looks way too network TV for the part) who is now a member of a militia. We see Gannon in his trailer, his dinner interrupted by a sudden barrage of gunshots ringing out through the twilight darkness. He heads immediately for his police scanner, and hears that there was a mass shooting at a police funeral, with the gunman successfully fleeing. An instant later, he gets the call from the leader of his local militia: everyone come in immediately. Call no one. Turn off your phone so you won’t be tracked.
The group holes up in their surprisingly spacious warehouse, trying to figure out what to do next. Early reports are saying that the gunman was a member of a militia–and one of their assault rifles is missing, along with some other equipment that only they would have access to. None of them care about the deaths. Like Reservoir Dogs, this is a tense effort to root out who in your group has fucked you over, who has brought down a world of hurt and attention on all of you. Gannon, because of his experience in interrogating people and his solid alibi, is put in charge of the “investigation,” which is less a search for the truth than a desire to drum up any plausible suspect among them who can be thrown to the wolves immediately.
Gannon’s asset to the militia is supposed to be that he could identify any undercover officers and prevent them from joining, but we quickly discover, as a complicating factor, that that’s not something he’s been interested in doing: Noah (Brian Geraghty), another militiaman, is an undercover cop. He may also be Gannon’s brother–the movie is weirdly and probably unintentionally ambiguous on this point. At first, it sounds like Gannon may only be calling him a brother in the sense of “brother-in-arms,” but later Noah cries about how all he wanted to do was make Gannon proud, which certainly seems intense for a one-time work friend. I’m leaning towards them being literal brothers, because that adds impact to a later scene, but this is something the movie would have benefited from making clearer.
At this point, we have a situation full of serious and conflicting motivations. Ford (Chris Mulkey), the militia’s leader, wants to identify and turn over the killer–or at least a plausible scapegoat–and Noah, who has a suspicious alibi, is right in his line of fire. Noah claims that if he’s turned over to the cops, they won’t be able to identify him as one of their own, because his commanding officer–the only one who could back him up–died at the funeral; if Gannon defuses militia tensions by pinning the blame on Noah, Noah will just get killed by the police. Gannon wants to protect Noah and get everyone out alive, which probably entails finding the actual culprit. And the clock is ticking. Their radio contacts are reporting more militias arming themselves and acting, all across the country, and all–supposedly–in their name. Their death warrants are probably being signed as they speak.
Now, this sounds great. And while Dale and Geraghty don’t look quite right for their roles, everyone else rings more or less true, with supporting cast members Morris (Happy Anderson) and Hubbel (Gene Jones) as particular standouts. (Hubbel’s slow, sympathetic, matter-of-fact account of how he came to commit the murder that brought him to the militia in the first place is a chilling, perfectly handled monologue that is one of the film’s strongest moments.) And for a while, the film progresses gamely enough. Gannon conducts a series of interrogations, all while fighting off Ford’s push for them to just kill Noah and stage a suicide note confession, and he keeps getting confessions. In another bleak, striking moment, he answers Ford’s complaint about the false confessions by pointing out that he said he was good at getting confessions, not that he was good at getting the truth.
But then the movie starts turning false. Keating (Robert Aramayo), a seemingly mute young man, turns out to be a smart, sardonic, antisocial young man with a Salinger fixation and a newly-awakened need to constantly demonstrate his superiority, tagging each one of Gannon’s interrogation tactics as Gannon employs them. Unlike the other men, Keating feels constructed, not an organic member of the group but rather some hodgepodge of traits assembled from a psychological profile. The scenes with him drag.
The inauthenticity of Keating is nothing compared to what the film does next, however. Under pressure, Gannon confesses what led to him walking away from his career as a cop, and Dunham leads the viewer through one of the most pointless and nonsensical flashbacks imaginable. Gannon relates the following:
- He used to be an undercover cop. Once, he and another officer were deep undercover with a white supremacist group.
- Gannon was then called out in the middle of the night by his boss (at the police, not the KKK), where he was met in the woods by almost a dozen other cops.
- The cops had put the noose around a man’s neck. They proceeded to tell Gannon that:
- He was expected to “prove his loyalty” by hanging the man, who is–
- –his partner.
- Since the partner has gotten death threats from the organization before, the KKK will be blamed for his death.
- This will give the cops free reign to investigate the KKK and stop them from committing future crimes.
Now, I’ve already tried to break this down point by point, but let’s just slow this down even further and examine the breathtaking dumbness of involved. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek posits a world–presumably somewhere in the Twilight Zone–where entire squads of police are so devoted to eradicating the scourge of white supremacy that they would all agree to murdering another cop just so they can crack down harder on that damn KKK, an organization that of course has never been tied to crime before, thus leaving the cops with no alternative. What are they going to do, investigate the myriad lesser crimes the white supremacists are committing? Engage in community-centered, long-term policing? Nah. This murder of a guy they saw at the water cooler yesterday: that’s the way to go.
And this is, again, not just some random cop deciding that one person must be sacrificed under a false flag operation for the cause of greater justice. This is effectively a workplace consensus, which honestly forces you to ask the question: so, was Gannon’s partner just, like, that much of an asshole? Did he microwave fish in the shared kitchen?
Gannon killed his friend, but darn it, his conscience just couldn’t take it.
This is, once again, appallingly stupid; it also plays into a narrative where the real criminal menace isn’t something like white supremacy but the desire to end white supremacy, which has just Led People to Go Too Far. That’s pretty vile as far as themes go, but I find myself unable to be too offended by it, because it seems impossible to take it seriously as a premise at all, nor does it come across as though Dunham or anyone else involved has, even for a second, thought about the political implications of the idea. By the film’s conclusion, it is all too clear that The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is what you get when you mash up a solid thriller premise with the desire to be tagged as the “Reservoir Dogs for the Trump era” with a hackneyed set of artistic guidelines that demand twists, dammit, twists!
We aren’t through yet, though. Ford, frustrated that yet another confession has been proven unreliable, decides that that’s it, he’s killing this Noah guy–but his attempt at faking Noah’s suicide is interrupted by the ringing of Gannon’s phone, which he has turned on and hidden in the complex, thus allowing the cops to locate them because the cops really have been tracking their phones. Gannon rescues Noah, everyone runs, and the whole warehouse is hit with tear gas and smoke.
Gannon and Noah stagger outside, pleading with the cops not to shoot, while the warehouse doors slowly rise behind them, revealing the remaining members of the militia armed and equipped with gas masks. It’s an unfairly beautiful sequence for a movie that has lost 90% of reasonable good-will at this point, and it’s made superbly tense by the constant clicking of the motion light that we know is due to go off any second now, plunging the whole lot, and all the shooters, into darkness.
The lights go. The militia members die.
And just when you’re thinking that’s kind of a lackluster conclusion, one of the cops calls out to Noah, identifying him as a fellow officer.
Gannon’s confused. What happened to the idea that Noah’s life would be in danger if they went to the police?
Then the movie kicks into a series of disjointed moments that does less to prove its narrative point and more to simply prove that Dunham has seen The Usual Suspects. The gist of it all is this: all of it was fake. There was no shot-up police funeral. (Who got the job of standing in the middle of some cornfield firing an assault rifle into the sky?) There was no spate of copycat shootings across the country. The cops rigged the shooting, rigged the news coverage, and rigged the seemingly natural radio conversations militiaman Beckmann (Patrick Fischler) had been having with other groups. And why? As Noah tells Gannon, they had to do something. The militia was being all talk, and it wasn’t giving the police a chance to move. The fake shooting and fake incrimination drew them out into the open, where they could be entrapped into being slaughtered. This will, Noah explains, all help lead to gun control. The film ends with Noah rejoining his true brothers in blue, having proven his loyalty to them over Gannon, and Gannon being offered the chance to rejoin the cops.
To inaccurately quote another film: “Mr. Dunham, what you’ve just portrayed is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever seen. At no point in your rambling, incoherent conclusion were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having seen it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
I’ll grant you, at least, that the cops have clearly improved since Gannon’s time with them, since they didn’t actually kill multiple people at the police funeral just to have an excuse to kill the militia. But that’s about all that can be said in favor of the logic of this final reveal. The idea of an entire police force staging a fake event with Mission: Impossible levels of veracity and attention to detail just to entrap about seven guys into shooting at them, all in the belief that this would somehow lead to gun control when no other shooting had, including ones that actually, you know, involved the gunmen killing people as opposed to just futilely aiming at them before being mowed down by a wall of police officers…
Apparently, in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, liberal activists are just waiting for the chance to construct complex psychological traps to ensnare their enemies. Now that the world at large has seen that 1) white supremacists sometimes kill people and 2) militias have large numbers of unregistered guns, everything will surely change right away. Those two facts were completely unknown before the Jigsaws of the Sparrow Creek PD swooped into action. This was all definitely an effective use of taxpayer money and police time.