How to Blow Up a Pipeline Lights a Fire Under the Eco-Thriller
A heist movie becomes a call to action.
Revolutions start not with a bang but with an idea. The bang, when it inevitably comes, arrives later, in an all-hands-on-deck moment that divides the doers from the thinkers and lays bare the realities of upheaval, and of tangible ignited change. There has never been a bang put on screen quite like How To Blow Up a Pipeline, director Daniel Goldhaber’s follow-up to his horror gem Cam.
This film — which is certainly a departure in every way for Goldhaber and his creative partner Isa Mazzei, who wrote Cam and produced Pipeline — calls into question something that we’ve debated for a long time: whether or not direct action is worth investing in. And if you’ve ever found yourself arguing for disruptive progress, even a little bit, you won’t be able to resist the siren song of this film as it breaks and molds you into an activist with a firm and riveting grip.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline centers on a group of young would-be revolutionaries led by Forrest Goodluck’s Michael, an Indigenous young man with a lot to offer and a fiery rage burning inside him thanks to the horrors of the climate crisis, and Ariela Barer’s Xochitl, a young woman of color with similar ideals and dashed hopes. In an effort to dismantle carbon dioxide-emitting machinery at any cost, they hatch — and execute — a plan to blow up a pipeline alongside a group of kindred spirits, including the Texas rancher whose property had hardware forcefully installed on it by the state.
The heart of this film is in the excellent casting. There’s not a bad apple in this ensemble cast, with each actor standing out as individuals and part of a whole. Barer, who both co-wrote the script and stars, is fiercely brave and astute as Xochitl, with her leadership qualities shining through. She’s a worthy revolutionary leader, and so is Goodluck as Michael. Despite his difficulty in connecting with those around him in his rage, he is thoughtful and headstrong, his eye on the prize throughout the entire film, even when he’s berated by his mother for his dismissal of nonviolence. This kind of determination moves mountains, and his is the catalyst of everything we see in this film.
Sasha Lane, who is always thrilling to see in anything, continues her reign as an underrated natural talent as Theo, a close friend of Xochitl who enlists her girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson), into the heist. Lukas Gage and Kristine Froeseth play off each other well as Logan and Rowan, two crust-punk types who dedicated themselves to disruptive activism well before this plot. A fun and fresh couple, their excitement and dedication to the cause makes them out to be a dopier and more innocent Bonnie and Clyde. They have some of the most fun and nerve-wracking scenes in the film, which they approach with scrappy confidence and sharp street-smarts. Jake Weary gives an understated and stoic performance as Dwayne, the rancher who wants nothing more than to obliterate the pipeline that will ruin his family’s livelihood in more ways than one. He’s a crucial part of the operation, and it’s satisfying to watch his emotional guard give way to a fundamental brotherhood with these young revolutionaries.
The film’s smart writing highlights the sensational talents at work. You see, this story isn’t just about the destruction of a pipeline, but it’s about everything leading up to that moment. It’s about the feelings, actions, and realizations that brought each group member to their place on the day of the explosion, and How to Destroy a Pipeline does an excellent job of laying bare those core memories that become manifesto points for each character. But instead of laying the story out linearly, screenwriters Barer, Sjol, and Goldhaber cut up their main narrative and intersplice backstory strategically within. It’s an endlessly smart and disruptive tactic that interrupts the narrative in the same way the characters do with their scheme. It injects emotion, meaning, and important narrative points into the film, pushing it beyond its eco-thriller label.
This storytelling approach naturally bleeds into the film’s energetic editing style. Not only do these cuts give the audience the extra context they need and should have, they also line up perfectly from a dramatic aspect. The cuts serve to push the story onward and jolt the audience both backwards and forwards in time. Goldhaber and his co-writers do an incredible job of making sure these set pieces line up with both emotional and shocking moments in the lives of the characters. It’s an immersive tactic that should get editor Daniel Garber the attention he deserves as well. The editing is so tangible and sharp, punctuating the narrative like a stapler, it almost becomes a character presence in and of itself.
That said, if you’re going into this movie thinking it’s going to be a heart-racing thriller from start to finish, adjust those expectations. The film is a tad misrepresented in its pacing, but when things start to really ramp up to eleven, there’s no denying you’ll be unable to do much other than slide off the edge of your seat. You will not look at your own inaction and the inactions of others the same way again. It feels that real and urgent, even as the film takes a slower approach than you’d expect. That works to its advantage — instead of getting a fast and furious heist film that gets in and gets out with little else at work, the audience is faced with getting to know everyone involved in this protest act, deepening their own connection to it in the process. We’re able to sit with the characters’ choices and hold a mirror to our own as we do. Would we have done the same? The film forces us to ask ourselves that question —and it forces us to truly reckon with the answer in the wake of its characters’ ultimate fate.