Arts & CultureThe House Reviews

‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Is an Explosive Small-Budget Indie

A person walks in the snow with their back turned to the camera, walking toward an oil stack with a flame, known as a flare, burning in the distance in a still from the film How to Blow Up a Pipeline
‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ runs at Independent Picture House through April 27. (Movie still courtesy of NEON)

From the first shot of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, the feature film adaptation of Andreas Malm’s book of the same name, it is clear what ensues would be a prime example of solid filmmaking. Smooth transitions, strong performances from a diverse cast, and the superb screenwriting are all evident from the get-go. 

The grainy film textures and retro synth-wave film score by Gavin Brivik immediately set the tone, reminiscent of another brilliantly cultivated motion picture, Drive (2011) from writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn who, at the time, was relatively unknown to moviegoing audiences. 

The same could be said about How to Blow Up a Pipeline writer and director Daniel Goldhaber, whose film delves into the lives of seven young adults who plan to escalate their environmental activism into ecoterrorism.

 

As they say, however, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and while what this group intends to do would undoubtedly fall under the category of terrorism in the eyes of the media and many of its consumers, for this group of friends it is simply an act of self defense. 

After all, everyone involved in this scheme has had their lives tragically impacted by the horrible effects of the extreme and irresponsible overuse of fossil fuels. Frustrated with the snail-like approach of protests and petitions against the oil industry, this group sees our current climate dilemma in a more dire light, deciding to take a more direct approach and hit these corporations where it hurts: their pockets.

A woman stands with her hand up against a large oil pipeline.
Ariela Barer in ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline.’ (Still courtesy of NEON)

We immediately meet our protagonists in the execution stage, as they all make their own ways, by various modes of transportation, to the oil rich state of Texas. You may have already guessed the goal, as the title of the movie gives that up rather quickly, and the target is located in the middle of nowhere — also known as west Texas — in the dead of winter. 

As the participants arrive one by one, they congregate in an abandoned shack within close proximity to ground zero. As they prepare, we begin to get a feel for their personalities, a Breakfast Club of bombers, each with their unique reasons for being there. It’s hard to believe these clashing personas could get anything done at all, but their shared cause unites them, bringing them together every time things appear to be falling apart.

As the story unfolds and the tension rises, intermittent flashbacks provide breaks in the action, helping to lay out a little backstory on each character for viewers to better understand what brought these individuals to this point of extreme action. 

The cast is made up of a vibrant group of talented up-and-coming actors, a refreshing change from the familiar Hollywood faces. Co-writer Ariela Barer plays Xochitl, a reserved, intelligent young student and the most intensely dedicated member of the group. 

Xochitl recruits college classmate Shawn (Marcus Scriber of Blackish) as he attends meetings on campus for students interested in doing something about the climate situation. Frustrated by the lack of action on the part of this group, Shawn becomes more convinced of the urgency of the situation by social media and internet videos signaling the end of the world. 

Another recruit named Theo (Sasha Lane) has developed a serious health condition she attributes to growing up near an oil refinery. She hopes she can make some serious change so no one else has to suffer as she does. Alisha (Jayme Lawson) joins the group out of support for her partner, Theo. 

The most eccentric of the bunch is Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an Indigenous North Dakotan who feels marginalized for his heritage and has spent most of his days picking fights with local Caucasian oil riggers and learning how to build homemade explosives, posting how-to videos on YouTube. 

A man in winter clothing stands still, waist deep in snow, glaring anxiously out of frame, with a large oil refinery facility behind him.
Forrest Goodluck in ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline.’ (Still courtesy of NEON)

Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) are alt types dressed in black, tattered clothing and covered in tattoos — the types those in the MAGA crowd would immediately label as “Antifa.” They are a rebellious couple with a minor criminal history who are happy to tag along just for the opportunity to stick it to the man. 

The eldest member of the group is Dwayne (Jake Weary), a native Texan whose property is to be seized by the government in order for the oil company to build an additional stretch of pipeline through it. Dwayne has always been a patriot, but this abuse of imminent domain has made him seriously question his loyalty.

Although the use of flashbacks are sometimes frowned upon in the industry, Goldhaber and his co-writers, Jordan Sjol and Barer, put the devices to use wisely. While these scenes do take away from the momentum in spots, they provide information crucial to clarity of plot and to set up the film’s eventual outcome. 

It was obvious from the beginning that this film was a well-planned project; despite taking only 19 months to finalize from conception to completion the filmmakers were able to be meticulous about every aspect. The only thing they may have skimped on was the film’s trailer, which doesn’t do the thrilling cinematic joyride much justice. 

In the same structure of a heist film, How To Blow Up A Pipeline, is interspersed with frequent twists and turns. As intense as it gets, the film also has time for some laughter and silliness. 

In one such scene, which takes place on the night before go-time, the crew huddles together in their makeshift headquarters to indulge in a drink(s). They discuss the importance of the upcoming act itself with a sarcasm that only serves to break the anxiety around what they all know to be a serious mission. They acknowledge the fact that, after it’s all over, they will be labeled terrorists by the media, law enforcement and many of their own neighbors.

Not letting that idea slow them down, they point out the many heroic activists who were painted as terrorists in their day, ranging along the historical timeline from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jesus Christ. How they’re perceived in the now is not of their concern with the future of the planet at stake. 

How to Blow Up a Pipeline addresses not only the topic of climate change but other systemic issues within modern-day America. Shot on a 16mm Kodak film camera, the film is a gutsy micro-budget production that is sure to give today’s blockbusters a run for their money.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is running through April 27 at the Independent Picture House. 


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