Shot in Dallas, Texas, Henry Dunham’s THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK feels both like a real life news story that just happened yet and a cautionary tale with just the right amount of hope that it can be avoided. Bringing to mind the work of David Mamet and Jeremy Saulnier, the tense thriller follows a reclusive ex-cop caught inside a militia moments after another member shot up a police funeral. Knowing this incident of violence might spark copycat incidents in other militia across the country, he detains his ‘brothers,’ men he barely knows, and interrogates them until he can unearth the killer and hand him off to the authorities.
“People need connection, whether we like it or not,” explains the director, and finding the right setting for this story, which demands a man in conflict with his isolationist nature and then for brotherhood, led to the militia backdrop. “Setting that incredibly accessible conflict in this group,” he says, “and force the audience to identify with a room they otherwise never would, to me, there’s something there. There’s something that makes me uncomfortable and I can only go off of what makes me feel something because then I know somebody in the audience has to feel the same way as I do.”
I had a chance to interview Dunham last year as Fantastic Fest, where THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK world premiered to near universal acclaim. As with any film, the lead character, in this case ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale) is the key to unlocking the audience’s connection to the world of the story. “It all starts with that character,” Dunham says, “about going through complete isolation to being flushed with paradox.”
Gannon isn’t a an innocent, certainly, he’s not even someone I’d want to play darts with at a townie bar, but then again, no one in this room is there because they have a heart of gold. However, instead of getting bogged down in the ideology that may have led the men to this stage of their life, Dunham’s film instead focuses on their personalities, and the events of their past. Most are things that could happen to anyone, but these personalities are what led them to this moment. “The psychology there, and how people will get involved in shit they never wanted anything to do with, just because they’re going along with something, Dunham says, “that’s way more interesting to me and way more universal versus, as soon as you get a militia on screen, soapboxing about ideologies or politics, I’m just like, ‘I don’t care.’”
Instead, THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK plays more as a story of survival and preservation. They have a sense of justice that I think people can relate to. Even with this easily dismissed ideology, the simple fact that they want to stop the violence spreading unnecessarily has its own honor. “I’m a raging Democrat,” he says, “and even when I see movies that support what I love, I just want to see the story. The second you dive in that shit with ideology or politics, half your audience just stops listening. That’s death to a story. “
Of course, having started this script in 2012, it would be impossible to finish and film it after the political aftermath of Charlottesville without at least reexamining the story. Other than changing the name of the script from ‘Militia,’ Dunham found very little else he wanted to alter. “It’s delicate subject matter and it needs to be approached and handled with careful gloves and make sure you 100% focus on the story and make it just a stage play about this emotion being placed in this unfamiliar arena,” he explains, “but after that happened, it sort of reinforces this, that it needs to be done this way. To go in any other route would just be insensitive and inappropriate, to be honest.”
Watching Dunham’s film truly is like experiencing a new Mamet play, and Mamet in his prime, American Buffalo-Mamet. In addition to Mamet, the director admits to reading a lot of Tom Stoppard. “These guys are masters,” he acknoiwledges, “how they can weave plot lines, how they can have subtleties of characters coming out with the most simplistic eccentricities.” In a film set entirely in a warehouse, intensity of how people play off of each other is everything, the rhythm of the interaction fills the space. Another thing Mamet does so well, clearly echoed in STANDOFF is nobody is good and nobody is bad. Everybody is shades of bad. “That could be an alternate title for this,” Dunham laughs. In addition to Dale, Happy Anderson rises above the ensemble with a truly cutthroat and inspired performance as Morris, a man with a thoroughly understandable grudge against the police. But really every actor shines in these carefully orchestrated combats of dialogue and menace.
And of course, the twist. Because every Mamet script has a twist, I felt sure that STANDOFF was heading to ta great twist, because we know something else has to be going on, there are so many secrets, so much misdirection. To the end, I kept saying to myself, ‘oh, I guess that isn’t the twist, I guess that’s not the twist’ and then eventually ‘maybe, the twist is that there isn’t a twist.’
“I don’t want to talk about –“ Dunham starts…
Of course not. Part of the fun of THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK is that the audience is caught in the warehouse just like Gannon, desperately trying to solve the mystery before the authorities arrive.
And it’s a ton of fun.
Henry Dunham’s THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK world premiered at FANTASTIC FEST in September 2018 and opens tonight in theaters, VOD and Digital HD.
Release date: January 18, 2019 (USA)
Director: Henry Dunham
Screenplay: Henry Dunham
Producers: Dallas Sonnier, Johnathan Brownlee, Sefton Fincham, Adam Donaghey, Amanda Presmyk