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Review: A mass shooting provokes a minimalist whodunit in 'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek'

Review: A mass shooting provokes a minimalist whodunit in 'The Standoff at Sparrow Creek'
James Badge Dale in the movie "The Standoff at Sparrow Creek." (RLJE Films)

An ominous pop-pop-pop punctures the eerie silence at the start of “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek,” an efficient, mechanical five-finger exercise written and directed by Henry Dunham.

It isn’t the only time we’ll hear that noise in this story, which unfolds almost entirely inside a Michigan lumber warehouse stocked with military-grade weapons. For the most part, however, what we hear is not gunfire so much as a chorus of male voices, sounding notes of panic and alarm beneath the hard, staccato rhythms of the dialogue.

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Word of what has happened soon arrives by radio. An unknown assailant has opened fire on a police funeral, gunning down several officers, detonating a few explosives and then fleeing on foot. The warehouse’s seven inhabitants, all members of a self-styled anti-government militia, go swiftly into damage-control mode, aware that law enforcement is about to descend on their compound in search of evidence. And rightly so, as it soon becomes clear — one of their AR-15 assault rifles has suddenly gone missing — that the killer walks among them.

It takes a scant 88 minutes for “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” to unfold and far less time for a viewer to identify its primary influences. Dunham, making his feature debut, has given us a stripped-down reworking of “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino’s brutal 1992 classic about a gang of thieves trying to nail the traitor in their midst, though here neither the blood nor the testosterone gushes forth quite so floridly. Dunham’s dialogue in particular, always quick with a jab and brimming with suspicion and paranoia, leans more toward the terse, rat-a-tat rhythms of early David Mamet.

There’s also a touch of the drawing-room whodunit, which seems both disquieting and incongruous under the circumstances. We are among a group of gun experts, many of whom have backgrounds in military and law enforcement to go with their disgruntled attitudes and libertarian politics. Each of these men is an all-too-plausible perpetrator, and that realistic sense of menace — the ever-present threat of violence that seems to hide and linger in the thick, pooling shadows of Jackson Hunt’s cinematography — makes for an unnerving if not always persuasive fit with the busy, twisty machinations of the plot.

Every mystery needs a sleuth, and the one pressed into service here is an ex-cop named Gannon (a fine James Badge Dale), who puts his investigative skills to work at the behest of the militia’s unsmiling leader (Chris Mulkey). Over the course of a few swift interrogations, the suspects reveal themselves to be a motley crew: There’s a schoolteacher (Patrick Fischler), a neo-Nazi (Happy Anderson), a retired highway contractor (Gene Jones), and, least persuasively, a mute teenager (Robert Aramayo) with a disturbing notebook in his locker.

Temperamentally, they’re pretty homogeneous, more or less running the gamut from snide to surly. One rare exception is the quiet, reserved Noah (Brian Geraghty), whose hushed exchanges with Gannon supply the first in a series of too-carefully timed narrative reversals. The atmosphere turns increasingly desperate as the stakes multiply — as some radio chatter makes clear, the funeral shooting may not have been an isolated incident — and a confrontation with the authorities draws ever closer.

Dunham stacks this house of cards deftly enough, and his story can scarcely be accused of overstaying its welcome. That’s not entirely a good thing. The excellent actors are not given much room to breathe or to bring real flesh and feeling to their characters’ various agendas and grievances.

And although it gestures in the direction of subjects like anti-authoritarianism, right-wing extremism and various forces that have conspired to make America the mass-shooting capital of the world, “The Standoff at Sparrow Creek” seems less interested in commenting on said forces than exploiting them. It flirts with politics but is content to settle, in the end, for a parlor trick.

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‘The Standoff at Sparrow Creek’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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