In the middle of the night, rapid firing gunshots can be heard at a distance. The opening of writer-director Henry Dunham’s debut feature is surprisingly still and measured considering that the remainder of the film is anything but slow. Setting off an intense chain of events, the gunshots lead ex-cop Gannon to a dark warehouse – the meeting place of his militia. As the other members arrive one by one, an awful realisation hits. One of their assault rifles is missing, along with body armour and some grenades. Someone in this group has done something terrible, and its Gannon’s job to find out who.
Dunham’s set-up is masterful, quickly dispensing with exposition in favour of a mystery slowly revealing itself. Gannon’s experience as a policeman perfectly places him to interrogate the other members, trading charged words with them one by one to try and find the truth. Standoff lives and dies by its dialogue, a brilliant balance of zingy exchanges and deliciously delivered speeches. There is something reminiscent of S Craig Zahler here, the feeling that the tense atmosphere could turn to brutal violence at any second. Coupled with the shadowy aesthetic – faces are almost always half hidden in the warehouse’s limited lighting – the atmosphere drips with danger. Quick words threaten to turn into quicker bullets at any second, as Gannon’s anxiety deepens.
Dunham is aware of the material he is playing tribute to, a fact reflected in characters that are wary of their own clichés. With enough depth to make them differentiable, each character brings something slightly new to the tropes they represent, a credit to the strong cast filling their shoes. Most interesting is Robert Aramayo’s sociopathic Keating, younger and initially more silent than the rest of the gang. Easily the most self aware of his place in this predicament, Keating balks at having to “trade monologues” with Gannon. But, like an exchange between Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter, it is this type of battle of wits that elevates Standoff to its heights. Keating is calculated and controlled, his manifesto scrawled into the pages of The Catcher in the Rye – a perfect sparring partner for the increasingly desperate interrogator. For his part, James Badge Dale fully embraces his role as Gannon, fighting with all his cunning and ability to protect those he cares about.
If anything bogs down Dunham’s impressive debut it is a desire for a climactic ending. Dunham’s solution is to try and be a little too clever, throwing away alliances and admirable character development for the sake of a slight surprise. It doesn’t quite amount to a twist, and feels a little as if the film has run out of steam. Standoff is strongest when letting the unknown languish, or even better when the mystery seems to be solved, only to have the rug pulled away once more. Perhaps clarity is Dunham’s enemy, but considering the limited setting and simplicity at it’s heart, few films can match The Standoff at Sparrow Creek for intelligent writing, suspense and understated thrills.
Crime, Drama | USA, 2018 | Glasgow Film Festival | Signature Entertainment | Dir.Henry Dunham | James Badge Dale, Brian Geraghty, Patrick Fischler, Chris Mulkey, Happy Anderson, Gene Jones