Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but they don’t always inspire great art. While “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is based on the non-fiction book by of the same name by Swedish environmentalist Andreas Malm, a fictional fantasy of environmental terrorism with real stakes, the film itself is sorely lacking precisely that.
An ensemble drama too diluted to meaningfully establish any characters, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” relies on tension-building music and chaotic flashbacks to piece together its one-trick heist narrative. Using the book as philosophical inspiration, this Gen Z eco-thriller tries to speak to young audiences plagued by climate anxiety, but it lacks the style or ingenuity to translate.
Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, who co-wrote the script with “Runaways” actor Ariela Barer (who also stars in the film) and Jordan Sjol, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” features an impressive roster of up-and-coming young actors. “The White Lotus” favorite Lukas Gage, “American Honey” star Sasha Lane, and “The Revenant” actor Forrest Goodluck all add a measure of intrigue to the ensemble, but unfortunately the script spreads its characters far too thin for them to use their full talents.
As the action progresses, the film seems more concerned with the hitting beats of the story than sending its characters on an emotional journey. As backstories are doled out in scattered flashbacks, we learn their motivation for taking such dramatic actions, but only on a purely surface level.
The film begins with the group convening at a remote Texas location, each packing various chemicals, weapons, and other baggage. With very few scenes lasting longer than a few minutes, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” introduces its eight main characters in rapid succession. We meet Theo (Lane) puking in a bathroom after a cancer support group; Dwayne (Jake Weary) kissing his wife and child goodbye; Xochi (Barer) burying her mother.
Decked out in studs and leather, Logan (Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) represent the crust punk contingent, though they look like more like suburban cos players than actual anarchists. Abrasive loner Michael (Goodluck) is the explosives expert, a hobby he took up as an alternative to picking fights with the local oil workers near the reservation. Two Black characters, Elisha (Jayme Lawson) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), have fairly equal screen time but no dedicated back stories — they exist only in relation to other characters.
After a hard day of preparing explosives, the crew kick back with a few drinks and a single joint, where the sparkling conversation naturally turns to the subject of terrorism. Will they be branded as terrorists? Michael doesn’t seem to care. Dwayne points out that the Boston Tea Party was considered terrorism, to which someone replies, “If the American empire calls us terrorists then we’re doing something right.” Something something Martin Luther King Jr. being targeted by the FBI, it all feels very high school debate club.
As the action continues, the stakes remain at a steady hum. The tension of the beginning never really ratchets up, no matter how many times the same dramatic music plays. A minor snag is quickly resolved, with Michael muttering, “Your wire doesn’t fucking reach, Sean,” two seconds before apparently using it anyway and telling him, “Good job with the wires.” Stylistically, the movie is all over the map, with no cohesive visual language or point of view. There’s one faux-artsy shot of Xochi bathed in blue light smoking a cigarette, but even this clichéd motif never returns again.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is Goldhaber’s second feature, but he showed much more promise with the clever porn horror “Cam.” A gripping allegory about online identity and the commodification of bodies, “Cam” had a bold aesthetic and voice to spare. Isa Mazzei, who wrote “Cam” based off her own book, is a producer on “Pipeline,” but perhaps there were too many cooks in the kitchen for their vision to come through.
While the movie fulfills a fantasy that direct action is possible, there’s nothing to suggest it had any political or environmental impact. What “Pipeline” does accomplish, though it’s no different than what the book did, is to question what is moral in the face of environmental destruction. How far we will go to combat climate catastrophe, and what will it take to make the powers that be wake up and listen? A lot more than “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”
A Neon release. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is currently playing in select theaters.