Gun control, gun access, and gun mania are regular topics in American news as we’re a gun culture through and through. Militias sit at one extreme of the discussion alongside groups like the NRA, and while many find their positions and beliefs to be extreme the members themselves see themselves as necessary. Their appearances in the news are rarely flattering, and the movies have followed suit with tales of gun nuts going to “war” with the authorities and losing. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is its own animal, though, and while the title is meant to draw recollections of Ruby Ridge and Waco the film has something more in its sights.
Gannon (James Badge Dale) is an ex-cop making dinner in his remote mobile home when he hears automatic gunfire in the distance. He heads to a nearby warehouse and meets up with Ford (Chris Mulkey), the leader of their local militia who’s equally concerned about the assault weapons echoing in the night. The other five members arrive in quick sequence — Beckmann (Patrick Fischler) is smart and pedantic, Morris (Happy Anderson) is big and confrontational, Hubbel (Gene Jones) is an old guy possibly tired of it all, Keating (Robert Aramayo) is young, silent, and possibly sociopathic, and Noah (Brian Geraghty), the newest member, is an undercover cop.
The details of the shooting are still sketchy — someone with body armor, grenades, and a modified AR-15 opened fire on a police funeral — and the militia’s armory just so happens to be missing those precise items. Determined to identify who among them is the guilty party, if only to avoid a police raid, Gannon starts interrogating the likeliest suspects among them. Truth is elusive, though, when everyone has both access to hardware and an equally dangerous agenda.
Writer/director Henry Dunham packs an impressive amount of tension and suspense into a tight 88 minute running time, and while action is kept to a minimum the film’s no less exciting for it. It’s essentially a single-location thriller, and Dunham and cinematographer Jackson Hunt do wonders with the warehouse’s deep shadows and varied light sources. The choice to forego a score works equally well to put characters and viewers alike in the moment with singular focus. As a straight genre effort the film successfully keeps viewers on their toes with six of the men making for highly believable suspects, but it’s equally strong as a lit fuse designed to raise questions, start conversations, and piss people off on every side of the gun debate.
Gannon’s the only man we know is innocent, and his struggle to ferret out the shooter is a fight we’re programmed to support and encourage. His search reveals a simmering anger and hatred towards the police, and his lineup features men whose pasts are as filled with violence as are their dreams, but our dislike for the men doesn’t make them guilty. Dunham builds suspense through conversations both calm and heated, and the dialogue offers up an intelligent blend of accusatory attacks and infuriated, sarcastic defenses as characters are laid bare alongside our preconceived notions. These aren’t necessarily good men, but does that make them bad? And even if it does — does that make them the worst?
The cast consists of supporting players and each gets their time to shine beginning with Dale’s shaky moral center to the group. Fischler, Jones, and Aramayo craft very specific and engaging characters while Anderson steps it up a notch with a man constantly wavering between entertaining and terrifying. These are great performances with each of the seven men nailing their characters and the intended tone of Dunham’s angry, conspiratorial tale that speaks not just to this exact moment but to America itself. Suspicion, vanity, and resentment courses through them leading to in-fighting and more suspicion, vanity, and resentment. Can terrible decisions be made in the name of good causes? Is non-defensive violence ever justified? Are we too far gone as a country when it comes to our gun culture?
It’s an easy film to accuse of having an agenda — the production company Cinestate lists themselves in the credits as Cinestate Militia, LLC — but don’t be surprised if the person sitting next to you has a completely different view on what that agenda is. Nothing here is as simple as it seems, and identifying the good guys is every bit as difficult as picking out the bad. The world we live in is a gray one… or maybe it just looks that way through all the gun powder and tear gas.