“A nimble thriller and an absorbing character study.”
by Ken Bakely
In How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Daniel Goldhaber’s punchy, kaleidoscopic new film, we follow a group of ecoterrorists who have descended on an oil pipeline. They have come from all over, with differing backstories that have led them to this moment, united only by their conviction that this pipeline needs to be destroyed, because nothing else will send a message to the oil companies. In bits and pieces, Goldhaber, directing a script he co-wrote with Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, employs a series of flashbacks to explain how this came to be. There is Theo (Sasha Lane), who is terminally ill after a childhood spent in the shadow of a chemical plant, who has recruited her friend Xochitl (Barer) and girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) to move from civic climate activism to direct action; this disillusionment with incrementalism – that big business won’t be curbed by petitions and open letters – has also estranged Shawn (Marcus Scribner) from his university protest groups, brought an intense young couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) into the fold, radicalized Michael (Forrest Goodluck) into bomb-making after seeing refineries wreak havoc on the North Dakota reservation he was raised on, and convinced landowner Dwayne (Jake Weary) to take up arms against the energy companies that seized his property under eminent domain. Meeting for the first time to complete this task, they set up shop in a small house in rural West Texas, and plot out their mission.
There is ample debate among them, from the sheer magnitude of what they’re doing, to the inevitability of collateral damage – and this is to say nothing of what will become of them from a legal standpoint – and this is as much a part of the tension that drives How to Blow Up a Pipeline than the actions implied by the title. Predictably, the most exhausting discourse around this movie has been what it thinks about what’s happening here, whether it “condones” or “supports” what its characters are doing. But Goldhaber is clear that he’s primarily interested in investigating what happens when people feel that the incrementalist recourse that they would otherwise be directed to no longer seems tenable; the film takes its name from a 2021 non-fiction book by Andreas Malm, which argues that destroying the property of corporate polluters is not merely advisable but necessary; Goldhaber responds with a story set in and made for a world where such a book and mindset exists. This is a nimble thriller and an absorbing character study. He is interested in the connective tissue that takes their motivations to these particular actions – in small interactions and moments, wrapped in flashbacks. There can be no room for error in this plan, despite the fact that they have never done anything like this before. They know this, to varying degrees. But they can’t imagine anywhere else in the world that they should be than right here, at this moment.
The cast is very good at bringing these complicated dynamics to life. They understand that this is, again, not a movie that’s about trying to get you to like anybody. These characters are not necessarily on or opposite the audience’s side. They are simply here to do what they feel they have to do, and to watch this all unfold is compelling on these merits alone, based on Goldhaber’s nimble direction and cemented by the ensemble’s roiling, heady power. How to Blow Up a Pipeline builds steadily as it assembles a vivid, sharply-constructed patchwork, where things always feel tentative enough that everything could get thrown up in the air at a moment’s notice. Sure enough, things do, though maybe a little too late for the magnitude of some of these late twists to fully follow through. There’s a slight feeling that the ending is almost anticlimactic – at once abrupt and obvious in hindsight. Maybe that’s one of the costs of doing business for a movie as breathless as this. The edges can easily run a little too unsanded on a movie that’s presenting itself with such urgency, while also being such a widely dispersed ensemble piece. Yet what’s come before it is still so viscerally and blisteringly tense that it can’t be as easily undone. Crucially, the rest of the film works because Goldhaber understands what’s really attracting and keeping our interest with regard to these characters. Sure, they’re going to blow up a pipeline. But that’s not the only means to end in the story – it’s what’s had to happen to get them there.
Watch: Prime Video