Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, when the film was titled “892.” Bleecker Street releases the film in theaters on Friday, August 26.
Inspired by the true story of disgruntled former marine Brian Brown Easley (John Boyega), who takes to robbing a Wells Fargo bank branch so the world will finally hear him, “Breaking” is a perplexing and tonally off-kilter thriller-biopic. While it features some stellar performances — including the final on-screen role of the late Michael K. Williams, as a semi-fictionalized hostage negotiator — its individual strengths all seem to work in isolation. Even its best elements clash wildly and often, as the film heads toward a befuddling conclusion that works neither as dramatization, nor as commentary on real events.
Based on the in-depth article by Aaron Gell, the screenplay by Kwame Kwei-Armah and director Abi Damaris Corbin quickly arrives at Easley’s fateful decision to take a pair of bank workers captive, with what appears to be a makeshift bomb, until his demands are met. Those demands turn out to be shockingly simple. They emanate from a place of deep betrayal, which Boyega skillfully carries through his on-edge, theatrical performance, and which speak to the film’s thematic focus: the way returning US soldiers — Black soldiers in particular — are often mistreated and abandoned by the very structures that recruited them. However, that Easley’s goals are more philosophical than material is also in unfortunate alignment with the film’s own approach to its subjects (the individual himself, and the systemic faults which his sorrows represent).
The unfurling of Easley’s past, through flashbacks, and of his wider familial circumstances, through numerous phone calls to his daughter Kiah (London Covington) and ex-wife Cassandra (Olivia Washington), aren’t so much actualizations of emotional truth as they are mere factualizations of events, loaded with superficial, function-first dialogue that feels written with the broadest possible pen. Boyega internalizes each story beat with aplomb, but the film’s own aesthetic flourishes are front-loaded, before they slip into something comfortably noncommittal — something distantly observational. As a laser-focused thriller about a bank heist, it starts out with a bang, but the deeper it digs, the less treasure it finds, and the more it loses sight of its surroundings. Before long, all that’s left is a hole it can’t crawl out of.
The initial whiz-bang approach is alluring. Its decision to arrive quickly at the main plot, and to fill in the blanks later, offers the lingering sense that Easley’s actions are a foregone conclusion. Its cold, high-contrast palette, along with composer Michael Abel’s heavy, classically-influenced strings, help enhance the controlled chaos as the situation first unfolds. These introductory scenes are marked by stark visual shifts from cinematographer Doug Emmett, with focus blurs, Dutch angles, and askew framing that knock the other main characters — outspoken branch manager Estel Valierie (Nicole Beharie) and distraught bank teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) — off their emotional axes. Chris Witt’s snappy editing even serves the dual purpose of orienting us within Easley’s darting paranoia (through quick cuts to the room’s many security cameras) and of establishing the geography of the tiny room where most of the film is set.
However, once “Breaking” widens in scope, a series of interrelated disconnects begin to emerge. Police and media arrive on scene, and though the film follows both Easley’s interactions with them over the phone as well as their own points of view (primarily, the always-reliable Williams, as the empathetic Eli Bernard), its many transitions to events outside lose a sense of space and perspective. Movement, whether that of approaching news cameras or SWAT teams taking formation, is seldom framed in relation to the bank itself — the way it is in, say, “Dog Day Afternoon” — so new developments rarely have a sense of build or foreboding.
Conversely, they also fail to convey meaning for Easley himself; he reacts to these external changes, but the camera rarely captures what he’s reacting to. The more thrilling the events become on paper, the less thrilling they feel in execution because of this blinkered approach, rife with artistic indecisions that fail to unearth its myriad of relevant (and arguably vital) themes.
However, while the film eventually falls apart, its collapse is delayed thanks to a surprising tonal oddity. It may not seem like it at the outset, but “Breaking” is a very funny film as well. Whether or not this was the intent, Boyega and his co-stars seem acutely aware of the situation’s inherent absurdity, which they convey through the wildly contrasting energies they bring to the hostage crisis. Given Easley’s unconventional demands — which do not involve the bank’s money in the slightest — he performs his terroristic act with surprising politeness, though this doesn’t change the dread with which Valerie or Diaz respond to the situation (an echo of “Dog Day” that actually works).
The disconnect between Boyega’s frank demeanor and the ceaseless tension Beharie and Leyva put on display is delightfully amusing. That is, until the film drops a few hints about the real psychological reasons Easley may be approaching the circumstances with such disconnect to begin with — a thread the film not only doesn’t follow-up on in its narrative, but doesn’t fold into its aesthetic approach or its performances. What first appeared to be nuance turns out to be a rather ill-conceived approach.
Ironically, in this moment, “Breaking” itself becomes disconnected from reality, a problem that becomes magnified when it comes time for the film to wrap things up and find something to say. The way real events concluded is hardly a mystery, and had this conclusion been folded into the narrative, it would have spoken seamlessly to Easley’s fatalistic outlook and several of the broader themes the film attempts to grasp. Instead, its climactic moments end up layered in visuals and thematic obfuscation, resulting in a baffling exclamation mark unintentionally bent into a lingering “?”
“Breaking” is a vital step for Boyega as he continues to prove his post-“Star Wars” chops — his delicate balance of seething, operatic anger and subdued despondency remains exciting, even when the film ceases to be — but the overall result is poorly conceived. That it works best as a bog-standard thriller is perhaps the biggest indictment of its approach to real-world events. It has so many things it wants to say about the state of modern America, but it finds no suitable or impactful way to say them.
“Breaking” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.