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How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Following a group of eco-activists determined to make a statement, this tightly wound, always rage-dripping thriller is instantly gripping.
By Sarah Ward
August 17, 2023
By Sarah Ward
August 17, 2023

Every story is built upon cause and effect. One thing happens, then another as a result, and so a narrative springs. Inspired by Andreas Malm's non-fiction book of the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn't just strung together by causality — it's firmly, actively and overtly about starting points, consequences and the connections between. Here's one source for this impassioned tale about determined and drastic environmental activism: the warming world. Here's an originator for that, too: fossil fuels, humanity's reliance upon them and the profits reaped from that status quo. Now, a few outcomes: pollution, catastrophic weather changes, terminal illnesses, stolen and seized land, corporate interests prioritised over ecological necessities, and a growing group that's driven to act because existence is at stake. Turning a text subtitled Learning to Fight in a World on Fire into a fictional feature, How to Blow Up a Pipeline joins all of the above, stressing links like it is looping string from pin to pin, and clue to clue, on a detective's corkboard.

In his second feature after 2018's smart and effective camgirl horror Cam, writer/director Daniel Goldhaber isn't trying to be subtle about what dovetails in where. With co-screenwriters Jordan Sjol (a story editor on Cam) and Ariela Barer (also one of How to Blow Up a Pipeline's stars), he isn't attempting to rein in the film's agenda or complexity. This movie tells the tale that's right there in its name, as eight people from across America congregate in Texas' west with a plan — an octet of folks who mostly would've remained loosely connected, some strangers and others lovers and friends, if they weren't desperate to send a message that genuinely garners attention. Goldhaber's latest is explosive in its potency and thrills, and startling in its urgency, as it focuses on a decision of last resort, the preparation and the individual rationales before that. How to blow up hedging bets on-screen? That's also this tightly wound, instantly gripping, always rage-dripping picture.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline's main players have a shared aim, but have taken different paths to get there. As the clock ticks on their mission, the film gets procedural as well as visceral, psychological and emotional — showing the method, and jumping backwards to flesh out motivations. The format is heist-flick 101, establishing a gang, then explaining how the motley crew came to be as they're pulling off their job. The treasure at stake: nothing less than a liveable planet. With cinematographer Tehillah De Castro (a recent veteran of Doja Cat, Olivia Rodrigo and Anderson .Paak music videos), editor Daniel Garber (a Cam alumni) and composer Gavin Brivik (yet another), Goldhaber makes a constantly bubbling throwback as much as an of-this-very-moment tension bomb. The details are all now, but the look and feel could've blasted out of 70s and 80s cinema.

Those key on-screen figures: for starters, Xochitl (Barer, Saved by the Bell), a Long Beach resident who loses her mother to a heatwave, then gets mobilised when college eco-action groups aren't proactive enough; her childhood best friend Theo (Sasha Lane, The Crowded Room), who has the Californian city's proximity to oil refineries to blame for a rare leukaemia; and the latter's understandably stressed girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson, Till). Also tied to each other: couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth, The First Lady) and Logan (Lukas Gage, The Other Two), complete with a history of making a splash for a cause. Then there's uni student Shawn (Marcus Scribner, Grown-ish), trading doomscrolling for something tangible; blue-collar Texan native Dwayne (Jake Weary, Animal Kingdom), after losing his family's land to oil companies via eminent domain; and self-taught bombmaker Michael (Forrest Goodluck, The English), who refuses to acquiesce to the many ways that America's Indigenous peoples, including himself, keep having the earth taken from them.

As it charts blasting caps and more being assembled, and dives into everyone's histories as well, causation fizzes in How to Blow Up a Pipeline's structure, style, narrative and approach, too; William Friedkin's Sorcerer, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves and Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama all plant seeds. On show is the nail-biting pressure that makes the first of those flicks, which owed a debt to The Wages of Fear, such dynamite viewing about transporting dynamite. Always evident is the flitting to the events behind the events, plus the unpacking of the loyalties amid loyalties, that's so key to QT's debut, alongside a few other shared plot points. And, echoing with oozing-off-the-screen force is a question that also gushed when Jesse Eisenberg (Fleishman Is in Trouble), Dakota Fanning (also The First Lady) and Peter Sarsgaard (The Batman) were blowing things up a decade ago, plus a game cast playing Parisian radicals in one of 2016's French standouts: what else can be done?

Amassing this ensemble is a plan-comes-together feat itself, and the reason for naturalistic yet intense performances, a blend that isn't easy to make feel this raw and lived in. Here, everyone doesn't just get their moment as their characters navigate mistakes being made, equipment failing, drones hovering and bones getting broken — they blister. Goldhaber, Sjol and Barer's writing is that incisive, especially while moulding their entire script around joining dots, then more dots, then more still. They connect to healthcare struggles in a system where medical treatment to stay alive is the domain of the rich; to awareness-raising documentaries that share difficult true tales, but don't make a practical impact for their subjects; and to the massive and engrained chasm between the haves and the have nots. How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn't ever forget for a second, though, that everything that this story links to is about people.

When the film is propulsive, hectic and a non-stop cavalcade of building momentum, Barer, Lane, Goodluck and company are electrifying, and also exceptional at conveying who Xochitl, Theo, Michael and the crew are via their physicality, presence and expressions. When the movie gets talky as the synth-heavy score thrums, they give voice to the storm of complications lingering around their quest, destruction as a form of protest and going beyond endeavouring to appeal to energy companies' consciences. One such point arrives about a third of the way in, over drinks and chats about terrorism, if their planned efforts count and past revolutionaries that would've earned the label in their time. Even as debate bounces around the room, no one shies away from what they're doing, why and the commitment to sparking repercussions for those benefiting from destroying the environment. How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn't ever dream of doing anything but staring straight on, either — and it's incendiary to watch. 

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