It has become very popular to offer up shades of grey in both movies and television, to blur the lines between which group of folks are the good guys, and which group are the bad. Sometimes this is the result of understanding the world at large is full of grey, and the story being told offers up a disturbing mirror in which we can see a reflection of ourselves which isn’t quite as rosy as we’d like. Sometimes it is all a little more far-fetched than that and, when one stops and thinks about the messaging involved, one grows uneasy for an entirely different reason.
Written and directed by Henry Dunham, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” fits into this latter category. The movie, a wonderfully intense thriller, over the course of its brief runtime manages to get the audience to side with a small militia which has been stockpiling an impressive array of arms seemingly for the day when they have to battle the police and/or government more broadly.
It all starts out when one of their number, an ex-cop named Gannon (James Badge Dale), hears automatic gunfire in the woods outside his house. Turning on his police radio he hears reports of a shooting at a funeral and soon heads out to meet his fellow militiamen at a lumber mill. When it appears as though one of their number is responsible for the shooting, it falls to Gannon to figure out who did it before the situation gets worse.
Leaving aside, just for the moment, the questionable messaging of the film, it is, as noted above, an intense movie. Nearly all of it takes place within the mill and with this group of men (played by Dale, Chris Mulkey, Brian Geraghty, Robert Aramayo, Patrick Fischler, Happy Anderson, and Gene Jones) cutoff from the outside world except for their CB radio. Things seem to be getting worse in the outside world and that translates towards more fear inside.
Dunham works the increasing stress wonderfully. Information arrives in dribs and drabs, untrustworthy and unverified, but wholly necessary if the militia is going to successfully live through the night. The backstories for the characters, at least those stories which are presented, come out in the same way and allow audience opinion to grow and change over the course of the film.
It is a dark story and that is reflected in the visuals. Most areas are dimly lit and the mill is a large, confusing, place. One particularly wonderful scene features the militiamen listening at the loading dock as the doors are tested from the outside, one by one. It is a moment where Dunham shows deftness in his storytelling and which works even if one is convinced that the sound of their shoes would give the militiamen away.
But, there is still this lingering question of the film’s message. “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” paints the police as the bad guys and, by and large, the militia as the good guys. This militia has a clearly troubled kid in it, a former member of a white supremacist group (and while he may have abandoned the group, it is never discussed whether he abandoned their ideals), and goodness knows who else. As noted, they are stockpiling serious weapons for a potential showdown with the police and are more than willing to all hide from the police when they believe one of their number has gone on a rampage at a police funeral. They are not good guys, but in the end, the film paints them as better than the government.
Whether it is intentional or not, that seems like an odd message put out there. It is something the viewer is going to have to wrestle with after the closing credits, because while “Standoff at Sparrow Creeks” issues said verdict, it doesn’t really examine it, and it begs to be examined. With an under 90 minute runtime, there is space to have done that, but Dunham does not bother and that is troubling. Does he have no opinion on the militiamen, does he not realize the message he has sent, does he question of the validity of our government, or is it something else entirely?
The ambiguity of the film’s viewpoint is just as troubling as anything else in it.
photo credit: RLJ Entertainment