Question: How many militias does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Answer: Militias don’t screw in light bulbs because they like to operate in the dark.
This is especially true of the militia in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, the debut thriller from writer/director Henry Dunham. The story begins with a loner named Gannon (James Badge Dale, who’s featured in at least two other features at this year’s TIFF), stepping out of his trailer when he hears automatic gunfire in the distance. Recognizing that it’s from an AR-15 assault rifle, he quickly meets up with his fellow militia members at their secret stash house – a mostly empty lumber warehouse on the edge of town – to review their weapons cache. They immediately discover one of their assault rifles and a bunch of other weaponry is missing and was used in a mass shooting at a police officer’s funeral. Their leader, Ford (veteran character actor Brian Geraghty: Cloverfield, Whiplash, 48 Hours) realizes the full weight of the law will come crashing down on them if they don’t ferret out the culprit among the ranks, so he charges Gannon, an ex-cop, with interrogating those members without a strong alibi. As he creeps closer to the truth, chatter over their radio reveals that the massacre has triggered other militias to attack police across the country, and that it’s only a matter of time before the local law arrives for them.
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a lesson in the right way to do a micro-budget feature. In the tradition of movies such as Reservoir Dogs and Free Fire, we’re presented with a group of well-armed outsiders whose paranoia is pushed steadily to violent confrontation. Of course, to hold an audience rapt with limited resources, it’s important to have a stellar cast. Dunham and his crew wisely wrangled some of the best character actors out there to round out their roster of wannabe vigilantes. Joining Dale and Geraghty are Happy Anderson (Mindhunter, Bright, Cold in July), Patrick Fischler (Lost, Twin Peaks, Red State), Gene Jones (The Sacrament, The Hateful Eight, The Old Man & the Gun), and Robert Aramayo (Game of Thrones). Watching their characters spar with each other is often wonderfully tense.
Dunham’s direction is equally solid, and he makes great use of the various decrepit rooms in the warehouse while usually bathing his characters in plenty of darkness, which is only appropriate given both their secretive natures and the fact they’re also figuratively in the dark in terms of what really happened. (The only headscratcher is the funeral taking place after dark – when does that ever happen?)
For most audience members, who are in the dark themselves about the inner workings of a militia, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is also a fascinating dive into the culture of well-armed anti-government types. Some of these men aren’t playing with a full deck, and some are downright dickheads, but Dunham refuses to paint them as two-dimensional paranoid gun nuts, which is unexpectedly refreshing, and allows for a surprising ending.
The Midnight Madness program at TIFF is valuable for helping launch careers by celebrating their first features. It’s safe to say that Dunham – pun very much intended – is well-armed to survive the harrowing world of film.