Young filmmakers tend to wear their influences on their sleeves, and that’s especially true with independent cinema. Regularly, you see directors trying to be the next Kevin Smith. Some want to be Richard Linklater. And yes, there are many, many examples of filmmakers attempting to be the next Quentin Tarantino. For better or worse, and in this case worse, debut director Henry Dunham proudly dons his black and white “Reservoir Dogs” suit while bringing “The Standoff At Sparrow Creek” to life.
Noticeably, the opening minutes of Dunham’s debut film is dialogue-free. The audience is thrown into the depressing, isolated life of Gannon (James Badge Dale), as he prepares a meal in his rundown, dimly-lit trailer watching a classic television program. That’s when the automatic gunshots ring out in the air, followed by explosions, and ending with more gunfire. When Gannon throws on the police scanner, that’s when we heard the first bit of dialogue from a panicked police officer, and you realize that the talking won’t stop until the final frame of ‘Sparrow Creek.’ And sadly, the film could have stood to stfu a little bit more.
The setting is simple, and one of the bright spots of the whole affair. Seven men from an unnamed militia in Michigan meet up at the Sparrow Creek lumber warehouse after an unknown, rogue militia man guns down numerous officers at a police funeral. As is protocol when this sort of event happens, the men get together, discuss what is known and begin the procedure of cleaning out their goods (i.e. weapons and body armor) for when the eventual search warrant is issued and their armory is laid to bare.
Tensions escalate, and the true plot really kicks off, when the men realize that one AR-15 (modified to become an automatic rifle), some grenades, and body armor is missing. You guessed it, we have ourselves a whodunnit where over the course of a scant 84-minute run time. Secrets are revealed, backstabbing occurs, and loyalties are flipped as the men attempt to deduce who is responsible for the terrorist attack.
And as is apparent from the moment the men realize a rifle is missing until the end credits, Dunham is channeling his best Tarantino, as his characters exchange wordy, clever monologues, witty retorts, and soap opera-quality revelations at such a pace, the audience is just attempting to follow along as best they can. By the time the credits roll, you’ll swear that the “Reservoir Dogs” filmmaker has a co-writing credit on the film.
When your film is limited to only a handful of actors, one location, dialogue, and a plot, you better hope that each one of those ingredients is top quality. Sadly, for ‘Sparrow Creek,’ that’s not the case.
First, the good. And when we say good, we mean it. The cinematography, courtesy of Jackson Hunt, is beautiful. Each scene, while still confined to the titular warehouse, looks unique and ripped from a painting. Lighting plays a big role in the film, and Hunt takes full advantage of working in shadows and silhouettes, giving each interaction between characters its own unique flavor. One scene, in particular, featuring a police officer investigating the warehouse, uses light in such a clever way that so much tension and suspense are conveyed with almost zero dialogue. Not too shabby for a film set in a lumber warehouse.
‘’Sparrow Creek’ is not so much of an ensemble piece as it is a series of one-on-one interrogations between Gannon and his fellow militiamen, who are all now suspects. And Dale is truly electrifying as the former police officer, with an unknown past that is now the only trustworthy member of this small militia. Led by this deeply underrated actor, the interrogation scenes are where the film shines. Even when the person performing opposite Dale isn’t on his level, which sadly is most of the time, the lead actor brings a level of intensity and spontaneity to each interaction, which could have grown tiresome in lesser hands, that you honestly don’t know what will happen next.
Sadly, it’s that spontaneity where ‘Sparrow Creek’ starts to show signs of Dunham’s inexperience as a filmmaker. To put the final pin in the dialogue criticisms, it’s important to understand that when trying to emulate Tarantino or even David Mamet, the words need to be crisp and clever, and the plot surrounding these monologues needs to be rock-solid. Without an air-tight narrative, the dialogue and dependable acting is fancy window-dressing hiding a shaky foundation, ready to topple at any moment.
‘Sparrow Creek’ tries to stay interesting by adding twists and turns at such a pace that it frankly gets tiresome. A new wrinkle to the plot is revealed in nearly every scene — by the ending, you’re just exhausted trying to keep track of who has what secret and which militiaman is hiding some new truth. And when the final twist occurs in the final moments, a surprise that should make you scream “Holy shit!” it ends up derailing the entire film and stretches plausibility to its breaking point.
Twists can be a crutch for many young filmmakers. They’re cheap ways to arouse reactions from an audience, and in the case of ‘Sparrow Creek,’ these revelations show a lack of confidence in the main plot that is alarming. Dunham begins his story with an interesting group of characters, a beautiful location, crackling dialogue, and a timely, socially-relevant plot. By the time the short runtime is exhausted, the plot’s imploded, the characters are unrecognizable after countless revelations, and all that’s left is the pretty window dressing of the clever monologues and cinematography.
Dunham attempts to out-clever the audience at every turn, and in the process distorts his vision so much that you leave the film confused and frustrated. All that fun, Tarantino-esque swagger that drew you in during those opening scenes is long-forgotten, and when the “who” in the “whodunnit” is revealed, you’re left asking — what the hell just happened? [C-]