Thursday 16 April 2020

On demand: "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek"

The twisty men-in-a-warehouse movie was wisely put into storage the minute Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs became a phenomenon: it was important, amid the indie boom of the 1990s, to work your own territory, land upon new ideas, and avoid the plagiarism lawsuits you didn't have the money to fight. Well, time has passed, and now the Texan writer-director Henry Dunham returns to the scene of the crime with The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, a terse, stylish B-movie throwback centred on a group of militiamen closing ranks after reports one of their number has opened fire at a cop funeral. Nobody as yet knows the shooter's identity, save that he may well be hiding among them; as the sirens grow louder, a decision is taken to smoke out the guilty party with an eye to turning him in, thereby preserving the group's collective behind, and we get to watch variably grizzled character actors stepping up to snipe at one another with loaded words. Chris Mulkey is the hard-nosed leader, very much the Harvey Keitel of this bunch; James Badge Dale the intense ex-cop Mulkey appoints to conduct this inhouse investigation; meek Brian Geraghty his brother, who might seem safe, were he not presenting as an Elisha Cook Jr.-like fall guy; and Patrick Fischler (now eternally remembered as the dude freaked out by the bins behind the diner in Mulholland Dr.) is a teacher with a quietly chilling knowledge of automatic weaponry.

The percentage of David Lynch alumni in this cast is, it turns out, no coincidence. What Dunham has absorbed from US cinema's foremost backwoodsman extends to an unnerving ambient sound mix and a wider sense of the malevolence lurking in remote, tree-shaded spaces - though Dunham maintains that the evil that pervades these spaces isn't supernatural but entirely manmade. As a group, his characters possess even less camaraderie than Tarantino's Dogs, who at least had the diner scene that opens their film to look back on fondly; all that unites these loners is that they've been cut off from polite society, and we're hardly reassured by the easy access they have to heavy-duty artillery. The pivotal exchange comes between Badge Dale and Mulkey on the subject of the hapless Geraghty: an agonised "He's my brother!", followed by a bloodcurdling "So?". Quietly, scene-by-scene, Standoff builds into a fully realised vision of American desolation: Dunham isolates his characters in big, abandoned industrial spaces, while setting us to wait for the worst to happen. There'd be no mistaking this for anything other than an endgame, whether for capitalism, blue-collar brotherhood, or the no less threadbare notion of white supremacy: the film's still a little off-radar, but if Dunham makes good on the considerable promise he displays here, you could see it sneaking into some future retrospective called Cinema in the Time of Trump or similar. Emotionally (and visually, with its considered Edward Hopper lighting) it falls on the cool side, and it's almost unavoidably masculine, which might put some off. Yet its stilled assurance struck me as mightily impressive: in a VOD market awash with hokey horror fodder turned in by chancers with no greater ambition than to be the next James Wan, how intriguing and encouraging to see a young filmmaker looking in the direction of early Kubrick or Sam Fuller instead.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is now available to rent via Amazon Prime.

No comments:

Post a Comment