The title of writer & director Henry Dunham’s feature film debut “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” (*** OUT OF ****) is reminiscent of the classic John Sturges paranoid conspiracy thriller “Bad Day at Black Rock” (1955) with its alliterative title.  Initially, “Militia” served as the preproduction title, but Dunham may have rejected it as too conventional.  Mind you, little about this gripping, provocative melodrama qualifies as conventional.  Basically, “Standoff” focuses on an anti-government militia group under police scrutiny, and law enforcement’s mounting concern about their trigger-happy membership.

Trouble flares up suddenly when an anonymous individual in combat garb shoots up a police funeral, and the men in blue suffer multiple casualties.  Miraculously, not only does the charmed individual who perpetrated this attack elude authorities, but he also makes it back to his militia outfit without a scratch.  When fellow militia members assemble after the fracas, they cannot account for one missing fully-automatic AR-15 assault rifle in their illicit arsenal at a remote lumber warehouse.  Despite its all-male, all-white cast, “Standoff” benefits from Dunham’s strong, forceful helming, his snappy dialogue, and lenser Jackson Hunt’s sinister cinematography.  Apart from some trifling plot contrivances, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is tense, exciting, and surprise-laden.

Indeed, the subject matter of an anti-government militia is as relevant to audiences as today’s headlines.  Moreover, Dunham doesn’t complicate this above-average thriller with arguments either for or against militia as much as contemplate the anomalous individuals who drum up reasons to join these fringe groups.  Ultimately, Dunham shuns pyrotechnical spectacles until the police and the militia clash briefly during the dramatic final quarter.  Throughout imaginative, white-knuckled, 89 minutes, writer & director Dunham sidesteps material which would have made this nail-biter not only formulaic but also predictable.  Happily, he has done a praiseworthy job of paring the story down to its absolute, essential components.  Not surprisingly, the suspense and tension that “Standoff” generates rivals similar low-budget features such as “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Usual Suspects.”

One of the militia members is a former profiler, Gannon (James Badge Dale of “13 Hours”), who left the force and sought serenity in the wilderness.  He hunts wildlife for game, cooks it, and lives the life of a recluse.  Gradually, we learn more about Gannon as well as his momentous decision to quit the police after fellow officers pressured him to kill a suspect to reassure them about his loyalty.  Gannon is the first militia member we see. He emerges from his trailer and listens to the distant crackle of gunfire.  Actor James Badge Dale delivers a spellbinding performance.

The leader of the militia, Ford (Chris Mulkey of “Ghost in the Machine”), contacts Gannon and five others about a rendezvous at a lumber warehouse in the boondocks.  After they complete an inventory of their arsenal of firearms and explosives, they come up short one AR-15.  Reports about similar militia outbreaks, such as at the cemetery, surprise them.  Ford orders their own communication expert, Beckman (Patrick Fischler of “Mulholland Drive”), to notify neighboring extremist groups that his chapter was not responsible for the shooting.

Afterward, Ford assigns Gannon the task of ferreting out which of them took the assault rifle and blasted away at the police.  One of them must have committed the crime because only the seven knew about the elaborate security measures the militia had installed to maintain arsenal safety.  Gannon chooses the two most likely suspects who might have done this dirty deed. One of those two is Morris (Happy Anderson of “Duplicity”), and Gannon’s questions and observations yield a quick confession.  Morris is an Aryan Nation heavyweight, with a lifelong grudge against law enforcement. Essentially, the person who saw a gang rape and kill his daughter was an undercover cop who refused to testify since he would have blown his cover.

Interestingly, Happy provides Gannon with a detailed confession.  Meanwhile, the other suspect is a tight-lipped, 23-year old college student named Keating (Robert Aramayo of “Nocturnal Animals”).  Out of the entire group, Keating is an enigma because he rarely speaks. Indeed, the others believe Keating is a deaf mute, until Gannon penetrates his hard-bitten facade.  Meantime, Ford is worried about another member, Noah (Brian Geraghty of “Jarhead”), but Gannon has no qualms about him.  As it turns out, Noah is not only a cop, but he is also Gannon’s brother.  Ford and Gannon figure if they can identify the guilty member among them, then they can hand him over to the authorities and suffer the least consequences.  Predictably, nothing turns out to be as cut and dried in Dunham’s screenplay as these militia men are prone to imagine.

Apart from its alliterative title, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” is one of those movies that gets to the point fast and doesn’t waste time piling up superfluous complications in both character and plot.  All seven militia members show up at the warehouse and analyze the shooting incident and what it means to them as well as law enforcement.  Although it depicts an extremist group, “Standoff” doesn’t stoop to hate ideology.  Races, creeds, and national identities are not bandied about.

The literate dialogue is laced with profanity, but each line contains vital expository information.  Since the action strands the cast in a warehouse, with an illuminating flashback about Gannon’s past, “Standoff” never wanders off its narrative course. Nevertheless, you’ll pull your hair out trying to figure out who crashed the police funeral.  The tension that escalates among the men about their own private Judas is equivalent to the suspense in John Carpenter’s sci-fi/horror, cult thriller “The Thing.”

A shape-shifting extraterrestrial, in “The Thing” (1984), infiltrates a scientific expedition in the Antarctic and duplicates one after another of their group to evade capture.  Consequently, the scientists must flush it out, but paranoia undermines the group’s unity.  Despite its obvious low-budget, with the action confined to one dominant setting, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” keeps you guessing, while Dunham forges an aura of eerie paranoia and tantalizing suspense. You can check out other great movie reviews here.

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