c/o Neon

c/o Neon

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked into the Goldsmith Family Cinema on Saturday, April 1, to see an advance screening of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” Lured to the theater by the film’s premise and my love for Lukas Gage, I was far from disappointed.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm, which highlights property destruction as a logical next step in the fight against climate change. The movie is unique in that few feature films are based on works of nonfiction.

The film follows eight young people as they conspire to blow up an oil pipeline in West Texas. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is as much a character study as it is a heist film. Despite the large cast of central characters, the movie does an excellent job of fleshing out each character’s storyline. First, we meet Theo (Sasha Lane) and Xochitl (Ariela Barer) after Xochitl’s mother has passed away. Following the memorial service, the pair have a conversation on Xochitl’s porch, shadowed by a looming power plant.

The frame of the power plant establishes why taking action against climate change is important for Theo and Xochitl. They live in a sacrifice zone, an area that is highly polluted due to its proximity to toxic chemicals. When Theo is diagnosed with leukemia, the pair decide to take drastic action.

As the film progresses, Xochitl recruits several people to join her and Theo in their cause. We meet Theo’s girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson), and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an indigenous man who frequently beats up oil rig workers and posts TikToks where he makes homemade bombs. The next recruit is Shawn (Marcus Scribner), one of Xochitl’s peers who is initially hesitant but commits to the plan after hilariously doomscrolling through apocalyptic tweets about climate change.

Shawn soon finds recruits of his own. While working on a documentary in West Texas, he meets Dwayne (Jake Weary), a property owner whose land is being seized under eminent domain. While reading a copy of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” in a leftist bookstore, Shawn runs into Logan (Gage) who joins the team along with his girlfriend, Rowan (Kristine Froseth), after being intrigued by Shawn’s choice of reading material. 

The film does an impeccable job of establishing the stakes for its characters. Understanding what each character is up against provides further insight into their motivations and also makes it easy to root for them. While blowing up a pipeline is an extreme act, it’s framed as an act of retribution, a way for the ensemble to seek vengeance against a system that has wronged them. The script finds an ideal balance between introducing the audience to each character’s backstory and developing the heist narrative at the heart of the film. This is due in part to the filmmakers’ clever use of jump cuts. In a particularly jarring moment, the group struggles to strap a barrel carrying a homemade explosive to the bottom of an oil pipe. When a strap snaps and the whole apparatus falls, the audience doesn’t see the aftermath. Instead when the barrel starts to fall, the film immediately cuts to another character’s backstory. The jump cuts throughout “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” masterfully ratchet up the tension and left me on the edge of my seat. 

In addition to artful filmmaking, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is compelling because of the strength of its performances. There is not a single weak link in the cast. Lane and Barer are riveting as Theo and Xochitl, delivering layered performances that drive home the film’s urgency. In close ups toward the end of the film, their facial expressions make the stakes of the group’s mission tangible to the audience. After following these characters, we want them to triumph because we understand the cruelty of the system they confront in their everyday lives. The emotional investment the film demands from its audience makes it all the more satisfying when the group succeeds, destroying the pipeline.

In a Q&A following the screening, screenwriter Jordan Sjol and editor Daniel Garber provided invaluable insight into the process of making “How to Blow Up A Pipeline” and what inspired them to adapt Malm’s environmental manifesto into a movie.

“What struck me reading the book the first time was this sense of excitement,” Sjol said. “I think it’s a very common experience when reading about or thinking about climate change to just feel horrible, exclusively, all the time…that the scale of the problem is too big, that there’s nothing that can be done. Andreas’ book, in a very historically grounded way, says, ‘Well, there are actually tactics that we haven’t been trying yet that worked in past struggles that we still can try.’ And for me, that was such an electrifying emotional experience that it also seemed like the perfect type of thing to build a heist action movie around.”

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” diverges from traditional heist films in its ending. Instead of neatly wrapping up the film and providing a sense of resolution, “How to Blow Up A Pipeline” only leaves viewers with more questions.

The ending of the movie was a lingering question throughout the filmmaking process. While the filmmakers wrote versions of the ending that showcased the effects of the group’s destructive actions, Garber said that they ultimately decided on a more ambiguous ending.

“I think eventually, we realized that ultimately this was a film that was successful when it was most grounded in character, when it was most focused on the central ensemble and their accomplishments and their reasons for doing this,” Garber explained. “I think that our goal really was to create much more of a space for the audience to kind of insert themselves and think critically about what the consequences would be, if that is even relevant. And to not be too heavy-handed in our storytelling approach.”

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is one of the most gripping and provocative films of the year, keeping audiences on their toes and challenging them to meditate on climate activism and what justice means to them. It is a film I will be thinking about for some time.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” will be officially released on Friday, April 7.

Ben Togut can be reached at btogut@wesleyan.edu.

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