Writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a suspenseful thriller that plays like a cross between a heist flick and a twentysomething “Mission Impossible” as a ragtag group travel to Texas to destroy a massive pipeline as a message to the oil and gas industry. The seven young adults see themselves as activists, but the Feds view them as eco-terrorists. Either way, they have plenty of skin in the game as seen through a series of flashbacks that introduce us to each member of the diverse crew. Ripe with tension, and featuring a first-rate cast, the ecological thriller moves swiftly to deliver a timely yet long-established message about environmental and health risks directly related to the petroleum industry.
We first meet Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a young Latina wearing a red hoodie, slashing the tires of a car. She leaves behind a yellow flyer on the windshield with the headline, “Why I Sabotaged Your Property.” She is the soon-to-be leader of a group of radicalized Gen-Zrs who are beyond peaceful protesting. “By the time any market solution does sh-t, billions of people will be dead from climate disaster” exclaims Xochitl while addressing fellow student activists in a flashback scene. She wants to attack things that are “killing us.” In her mind, actions speak louder than words.
At least one member of the college group, Shawn (Marcus Scribner of “Black-ish”), agreed with Xochitl. He got tired of making boring documentaries and so back in the present day, we see him roll a travel suitcase down an alley where he jumps into an old van filled with bags of Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer. With Xochitl behind the wheel, the two head toward the Lone Star State to rendezvous with the rest of the team ready to undertake their special “project.”
Over the course of the film, we are introduced to the rest of Xochitl’s crew which includes childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane from “American Honey”) who is battling cancer. She grew up next to an oil refinery and we all know that industrial plants emit air pollutants that increase the risk of heart disease and lung cancer. Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson) is the voice of reason. She still believes in peaceful protests but stands behind her partner’s call to action.
The group is rounded out by loose cannons Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), drug and alcohol-fueled lovers whose gung-ho attitude and aggressive tactics make them valuable assets, and lone wolf Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American from Parshall, ND, also the crew’s MVP. When he’s not hassling employees at the local refinery, he’s making DIY videos showcasing his bomb-making skills for a show called “Boomtalk” on his YouTube channel. Those videos caught Xochitl’s eye who then recruited Michael for the operation.
From all walks of life and different parts of the country, these diverse young people come together in West Texas where we meet the group’s final member Dwayne (Jake Weary). His family’s land just outside Odessa was passed down from one generation to the next. Now most of it is owned by the US Government, which expropriated the property using eminent domain to build a massive oil pipeline. The young eco-terrorists plan to blow up the pipeline in two places stopping the flow of oil temporarily which will cost the industry millions thus sending a powerful message. They also figured out how to do it without spilling a drop of the black gold.
Based on the non-fiction manifesto “How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire” by Andreas Malm,” Daniel Goldhaber’s sophomore feature arrives on the eve of the 10th anniversary of Zal Batmanglij’s like-minded eco-thriller “The East” which was co-written by its star Brit Marling. Coincidentally, Ariela Barer co-wrote “Pipeline,” along with Jordan Sjol. Both films traverse the same eco-political territory although Goldhaber’s less-polished indie thriller gives it an edge with characters that feel lived-in, who resemble real people not actors.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” moves at the pace of a Michael Mann thriller accompanied by strong performances and riveting moments. Gavin Brivik’s synth-heavy score, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream’s work on “Sorcerer” and “Thief,” adds to the tension. With climate change, pollution, and emissions in the news, we may not condone the group’s actions, but we sure can empathize with them.
(3 ½ stars)
Now showing in theatres