The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is simple, but unquestionably effective. As a taut, self-contained thriller, first time filmmaker Henry Dunham puts enough character work into an 88 minute piece of cinema to make some of the films flaws forgettable. The film packs a punch and remains engaging all the way until the credits roll. Dunham hits all the beats of the genre. Snaking his way through a story with twisty elements, sharp dialogue and something a little sinister on its mind.

The film follows a former cop, Gannon (James Badge Dale) who is joined by fellow members of a militia he is a part of. Gannon and the rest of the crew realize that a shooting at a police funeral has been committed by one of the members. Dunham’s film seems to play out in real time as Gannon and fellow militia member Ford (Chris Mulkey) take the lead in investigating the various members. All of the members seem to have a past. Though its central investigation is nothing you haven’t seen, Dunham’s script peels back layers and dives deep into the personalities of the men in the lumber yard in which they gather.

Ford notices a gun missing which sets off the chain of events for the film. What follows is a wonderfully executed first act of interrogations, paranoia and fear from the militia that the cops know their location and are closing in. Dunham uses the camera as a fly on the wall, a gate of sorts into the dimly lit warehouse setting. When Gannon begins to interrogate the men within the militia, things become more personal, so does the camera placement. The dark cinematography creates a unique aesthetic for the film.

Dunham hasn’t necessarily created the next great, classic crime-thriller. Extended portions of the film get a little too talky for their own good. In spite of that, Dale is excellent in the film as Gannon and balances out the rest of the cast. It isn’t so much just a piece for Dale as it is an ensemble piece, one that almost feels like a play given the fast paced dialouge and singular location. Dale and the rest of the cast seem to never be trying to one-up each other. Credit is due to Dunham’s ability to, in effect, reign in each of the actors performances.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek offers a deconstruction of the “excessively masculine” character archetype of films prior to it. Each man in the warehouse feels overtly willing to essentially have a pissing contest to see who is the top dog in the room. Dunham’s interest seems to lie in peeling back the curtain on this, as each militia member becomes more paranoid as the night goes on. Violent threats come from any member who is suggested to be involved in the killing. None more than Morris (Happy Anderson) who ultimately, and somewhat predictably, has some past issues with cops. That also seems to be a theme at play here. Gannon and Ford set aside those with motives, that includes Morris and the mute Keating (Robert Aramayo) who also predictably has a darker element to his character. For Ford, it doesn’t matter who did it. He is convinced it’s someone in the warehouse, and his goal is to protect the low key profile of the militia.

Though I say things are predictable, that isn’t necessarily a knock on the film. Yes, Keating is the quiet mute who seems to be the perfect choice to open fire on the police funeral. But, Dunham’s work here is smarter than just forcing dark moments out of his characters because they appear a certain way. In fact, Dunham plays into our perceptions of real life people who are like Keating. As character traits are revealed, Dunham’s called the audiences bluff in some instances.

A VOD release, this is the first truly solid film of the young year. Packed to the brim with some wonderful character work, and palpable tension, this is a film I’ve come away surprised at how quality it really is. James Badge Dale gives perhaps one of his best performances of his pretty decent career thus far. Dunham’s tense atmosphere culminates in a satisfying climax that’s twist doesn’t betray the good will built up over the course of the film.

You can rent The Standoff at Sparrow Creek on iTunes or any other streaming rental platform.

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