Silence can be the most effective sound used in a movie. Tension and suspense can be amplified with little to no sound as much as using epic music made by John Williams or Hans Zimmer. Movie audiences are so used to hearing some type of loud punch to accompany dramatic scenes that having almost no sound at all makes them uneasy and excited for what comes next. Same goes for less lighting and a sparse set, whatever takes away from a normal drama. “Less is more” applies to filmmaking as much as it does to anything else and freshman writer/director Henry Dunham knows how to flex that knowledge.
His feature debut, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, feels like watching a rope slowly but surely tighten until it snaps and drops a bomb. It actually starts with a bang, multiple in fact as reports of a shooting taking place at a police funeral come over police scanners in a small remote town. Ex-cop Gannon (James Badge Dale) gets word of the shooting and meets up with his fellow militia members at an abandoned warehouse. Militia leader Ford (Chris Mulkey) wants a strategy to avoid having the shooting pinned on the crew and Beckmann (Patrick Fischler) is keeping the cops from finding the group. But when everyone tries to leave, they see one of the group’s assault rifles missing. Now old-timer Hubbel (Gene Jones), mute weirdo Keating (Robert Aramayo), big brute Morris (Happy Anderson) and skittish Noah (Brian Geraghty) become suspects in the shooting and Gannon starts questioning them.
There’s a creepy emptiness to the atmosphere of Sparrow Creek that makes the tension all the more heightened. Dunham makes excellent use of lighting and space with the haunting empty warehouse set lit with a few consumer-grade work lights. The spare lighting leaves shadows scattered throughout the warehouse that seems to inch closer and closer to the cast as the movie goes along. It turns the warehouse into purgatory as Dunham plays out the mystery of the missing gun and the characters anxiously await their fate. There’s also nearly no musical score in Sparrow Creek, just the cold line delivery of the actors and the occasional knock against the hard floors of the warehouse creating startling echoes. The lack of gun-toting action is made up for by the unnerving anxiety as the audience waits for the other shoe to drop. It’s the equivalent of a bottle episode of a TV show where characters are locked in one location and play out emotional arcs, though Sparrow Creek has much darker subject matter to hold people’s attention. Sadly the tradeoff is the dialogue and how it’s delivered. Dunham’s script has nuggets of juicy twists with character reveals and developments in the whodunit case at the center of the story, but the line delivery is so rushed and practically whispered that some of the details might be lost in the scuffle. The dialogue itself is too blunt and bland for anyone to have any truly memorable exchanges. It’s telling that the sets and set-ups of scenes are more memorable than how the scenes are actually played out by the actors.
Not that the actors are phoning in the material they’re given. For an ensemble cast of what looks like a thrift store packaging of American men’s men, there are strong embodiment of Dunham’s characters. Dale continues to make his case for breaking out of supporting roles in bigger movies (Iron Man 3, 13 Hours) and becoming his own leading man. There’s a cool intensity to his performance as the investigator grappling with paranoia that he rarely breaks. He has a particularly fierce face-off with Anderson in one of the better confrontations of the movie as Anderson’s hulks over motionless in a chair waiting for Dale to come at him with some harsh judgement. Aramayo also makes an intimidating presence as the young mute of the militia, even if he comes off like an Evan Peters clone with an obvious Holden Caulfield influence. Even Jones has a nice moment as the creepy old man, harkening back to his famous monologue in No Country for Old Men. Geraghty is supposed to be the red herring of the story but he’s mostly left until the last minute and therefore doesn’t leave an impact. Fischler doesn’t fall too much into the “nerdy tech guy” troupe but it still leaves him with little to do while Mulkey is too boring even as he lingers ominously over each interrogation. The fault of the poorer performances here could still be the fault of the weak script but it would’ve been nice to see the entire cast bring something to the table.
To match the movie’s subject matter, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is like a high-powered sniper with a great scope but an empty clip. Dunham clearly has talent in terms of setting and filming scenes as the atmosphere of paranoia and loose triggers certainly fits the times. At only 88 minutes it must’ve certainly been a challenge to pack everything in to such a tight movie, a little more detail and space would have helped everything stick longer. But the haunting silence and vacuous space is still there, somehow louder than gunfire.