Current-events thriller shows ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline,’ plus a little more
Don’t go to How to Blow Up a Pipeline looking for another streamlined, over-produced procedural thriller packed with high-speed gratuitous sex and violence. It’s not exactly that sort of movie, despite its catchy title.
Oh sure, things get blown up, including pipelines. Shots are fired, people are injured. A group of environmental activists on the warpath against the fossil fuels industry gets their hair mussed.
But director Daniel Goldhaber’s fictionalized account of extreme action—he wrote it with help from writer Jordan Sjol and actor-writer Ariela Barer, based on a book by Andreas Malm—takes the time to characterize each of the eight millennial would-be bombers beyond the usual hasty background fill-in. That means less time for fireballs but more time to examine complex personalities and motives. Time well spent.
Each of the eight conspirators has his or her own story. Some of them are fully committed eco-insurgents, others not so much. Some are handy with tools, some not. Some are just flaky. One or two are crafty enough to ask detailed questions. Only a few are experienced at handling chemicals.
Xochitl (played by co-writer Barer), a woman of quiet intensity, is the leader, the catalyst of the group. Before she goes out on her mission, she lives with her friend Shawn (Marcus Scribner) in a house next to a refinery in Long Beach. In common with the rest of their comrades, Xochitl and Shawn are fed up waiting for a “market solution” to environmental ills. Perhaps not surprisingly, they do very little talking about how harmful petro products are—they’ve moved on to the next phase. “They’re going to call us terrorists,” they say.
Earlier, one member of the crew conducted punctured-tire sabotage, carefully leaving behind a note. “If the law does not punish you, then we will,” it says. Another used her house cleaner gig to hack security systems. We get meaningful close-ups of bags of ammonium nitrate and bottles of stump remover and drain cleaner.
One woman is so frustrated that all she can do is stomp on her cell phone. Another suffers from leukemia from living near oil-biz sites. They come from a wide variety of locales and backgrounds that would satisfy anybody’s horror/sci-fi flick cliché requirements. The common denominator is a cool, dead-pan demeanor, completely focused on the grim task—a target in West Texas.
Aside from the forceful Xochitl, the two most fascinating characters are probably Michael the bomb maker (Native American actor Forrest Goodluck) and Dwayne, a Texas construction worker (Jake Weary). They’re more focused and down-to-earth than their collaborators from the academic world.
Michael is the type who can walk away from an explosion shaken and then jump right back into work filling 40-gallon drums with explosive chemicals. Dwayne tends to get bored when the discussion gets too preachy; his operative concept is that a pipeline on anyone’s property destroys nature and must be stopped. The ability to spot survey drones at a distance is a valuable talent.
And then there’s the curious couple, Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth), who don’t pitch in with the heavy lifting and generally seem unsuitable for the job of enviro-sabotage. With their trendy ripped jeans, stoned giggles and professionally styled hippie hair, they look like refugees from someone else’s youth-market, die-by-numbers fright fest.
Despite its horror-flick-style array of expressive personalities, How to Blow Up a Pipeline takes a dead-serious approach to its subject. No warm and cuddly character traits, cute love-interest business or cheap thrills. In fact, it might be fun to see a dollop of humor in the proceedings, to lighten the mood of the grim combatants. But that’s not what this rock-hard, unsmiling tale of unhappy people acting up is all about.
If a viewer were to ask Xochitl whether the film needs some comic relief, she would probably say something along the lines of “Grow up, citizen, this is serious business.” And she would be right.