How to Blow Up a Pipeline Review | A Fireworks Factory

by Andrew Parker

Intense and politically loaded, director and co-writer Daniel Goldhaber’s thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline is the sort of work that naturally leads to lumps in throats and knots in stomachs. Using the heist movie template to depict the plans of a group of devoted eco-terrorists, How to Blow Up a Pipeline perversely and effectively balances densely philosophical food for thought with a shocking amount of visceral entertainment value. It’s the rare sort of movie that keeps the mind and body almost perfectly engaged throughout; an unlikely blockbuster that challenges the viewer and leaves them conflicted by the end, regardless of the thoughts they brought with them going into it.

Eight interconnected environmental activists from all across America converge in West Texas with plans to blow up a section of an oil pipeline, hitting the fossil fuel sector right where prices tend to be established. Cutting off supply and destroying vital infrastructure would throw the petrol industry into a chaotic freefall. How to Blow Up a Pipeline throws viewers right into the deep end, with the group’s preparations underway. The idealogical differences between the members of the plot are almost immediately apparent, but the film constantly cuts away to flashbacks that illustrate how they came to become radicalized and the steps that brought them all together.

Student and burnt out eco-crusader Xochitl (Ariela Barer) just lost her mother and comes across as the most passionate driving force, frustrated by the fact that quieter forms of activism haven’t moved the needle at all. Shawn (Marcus Scribner) is kind of like the second in command; a similarly minded classmate of Xochitl. Theo (Sasha Lane) grew up with Xochitl in Long Beach and is now dying of leukemia, a result of living too close to a refinery. Alisha (Jayme Lawson) isn’t much of an eco-activist, but she is Theo’s devoted girlfriend. Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are a couple of punk rock looking shit disturbers brought in to do grunt work, but are also harbouring secrets. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is the enigmatic, hair triggered explosives expert with a low-key death wish from a boomtown in the Dakotas. Dwayne (Jake Weary) is the eldest; a local who knows the terrain and is mad because the government took his family’s home and used eminent domain to build the pipeline on his family’s land without permission.

Every character in How to Blow Up a Pipeline has a concrete, often relatable reason to be there, but their work ethic, passion, and attitudes often lead to clashes that could jeopardize their bombing. The chemistry between Goldhaber’s cast members and the richly realized characters gives How to Blow Up a Pipeline just as much suspense and tension as the mission’s razor thin margin of error. The plot at the heart of their efforts requires stealth, precision, and a firm grasp on both reason and emotion. The characters created by Goldharber (Cam) and fellow writers Barer and Jordan Sjol (working from source material by author Andreas Malm) are all working from the same playbook, but are often on different pages or chapters. They are united by passion and advocacy, but they all differ in terms of what this mission means to them on a personal level. The individual performances from Barer, Lawson, Froseth, and Goodluck make the biggest impressions here on their own, but when taken as a whole, this unit feels uniquely compelling. It’s hard to pull off a group dynamic that feels both assured and chaotic at the same time, but that’s precisely what everyone has accomplished with How to Blow Up a Pipeline.

There are so many moving parts and – pardon the pun – combustable elements to How To Build a Pipeline that it’s astounding how well the film is able to convey a wide range of moral, ethical, and philosophical arguments both for and against the endeavour being depicted. Call it terrorism, activism, or revenge, but none of the answers will turn out to be right or wrong by the time everything wraps up. The more the viewer learns about the characters along the way, the question of right and wrong becomes secondary to what defines success to each of these people. Does it come down to making a huge splash with globally ranging ripples, getting away clean, or simply getting the job done? How to Blow Up a Pipeline is predictable insomuch as one knows well in advance that there’s no possibly way everything will go smoothly, but the ending and the questions about motivation raised along them way ensure that the film ends on several brilliantly thoughtful notes. Goldhaber’s title suggests something deeply anarchic and transgressive, when in reality, the film is expertly composed and balanced.

It’s all encased in a slickly assembled, visually gritty package that serves the material perfectly. If not for the spot-on plot structure that metes out just enough details at a time or clockwork editing, How to Blow Up a Pipeline would look eerily like a forbidden document of something the viewer shouldn’t be privy to, especially during the sequences depicting the nuts and bolts elements of the plan. That verite approach (most closely reminiscent of The Wages of Fear and its equally excellent remake Sorcerer) pairs wonderfully with the more conventional elements of human drama, with one part elevating the material further rather than distracting from it. How to Blow Up a Pipeline will push viewers beyond their comfort zone, leaving them feeling both invigorated and pleasingly conflicted in the process. It absolutely burrows its way under your skin and sticks with you.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline opens in theatres across Canada starting Friday, April 14, 2023.

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