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Tread lightly

Henry Dunham’s taut debut puts a right-wing militia on trial

“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek”

“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” kicks off after a shooting on a police funeral by a suspected member of a fringe militia. A reclusive ex-cop and fellow militia man named Gannon (James Badge Dale) suspects the gunman may be one of his own. When the remaining members of this unidentified Michigan militia regroup, Gannon is forced to put his own members under the intense scrutiny of his interrogation skills, find out who perpetrated the crime and before igniting a nationwide war between cops and militias. So begins this audacious debut from first time writer-director Henry Dunham.

The original script for “Sparrow Creek” topped the 2015 BlackList, an industry tastemaker featuring the hottest un-produced scripts floating around Hollywood—a distinction that quite often turns unknowns into A-listers. Recent other BlackListers include “Spotlight,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “American Sniper.” Dunham’s script is in good company and deserving of the accolade.

The film unfolds into a nail-biting exploration of what motivates the “unidentified white male” shooters that have perpetrated countless mass killings across our country. Dunham executes this high-tension interrogation by spinning a hypothetical yarn from within the ranks of a well-regulated militia, in all its multitudes: the militiaman disgusted with government overreach, the disgruntled patriot, a former member of the Aryan brotherhood, the school shooter, and the fringe conspiracists who want to Make America Great Again by destroying the rule of law no matter what the cost.

“Sparrow Creek” eschews the trappings of more modern, often spatially chaotic thrillers, instead opting for a stripped-down, pulpy whodunit that evokes the playful suspense of Agatha Christie for our current climate of gun nuts and InfoWars conspiracy theorists.

From the very first frame, “Sparrow Creek” will have you teetering on the edge of your seat, and when the final moments play out you’ll find yourself gasping for air having forgotten to breath throughout its 90-minute runtime. The suspense unfolds within the confines of a cavernous lumber warehouse, yet Jackson Hunt’s claustrophobic cinematography makes even a hint of light feel threatening; and Josh Ethier’s rhythmically sharp editing winds the razor-wire tension tighter until the film’s explosive and shocking finale.

“Sparrow Creek” features a who’s-who of “that guy” actors who’ve been stealing scenes in everything from “The Sacrament” (Gene Jones), to “Mulholland Drive” (Patrick Fischler) and Netflix’s “Mindhunter” (Happy Anderson) but it’s the terse MacReady-like determination of James Badge Dale, a perennial stand-out in every role he’s played, who, as the stoic Gannon, finally gets a role deserving of his understated demeanor and anchors this electrifying thriller through to the very last frame.

“The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is often as sparse as its premise, yet this slow-burn thriller, which lands on VOD January 18, packs a wallop of a payoff that will have you reaching for the blood pressure pills as the credits roll.

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