If it’s wrong to use words like “entertaining” in describing the eco-thriller “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” well sic the Big Oil goons on me and let the chips fall where they may.
A movie whose title tells the tale, it’s a bundle of nervous energy that wastes little screen time as it hurls us straight into the caper, an “act of terrorism” against the Texas oil oligarchy. It’s only via flashbacks that we get an idea of how “the team” is assembled, how one by one, these 20somethings are radicalized and set out to make a “Save the Planet” statement via bombs that cut off the flow of life-threatening hydrocarbons.
Based on a non-fiction book, a “manifesto” by Swedish activist/author Andreas Malm, sort of an “Anarchist Cookbook” for Millennials, it’s part “How To” tutorial, part eco-peril screed, with lots of speeches, debates and rationalizing what these eight disparate and in some cases desperate souls are about to attempt. And “Pipeline” is a genuinely suspenseful “Will they do it?” and “Will they get away with it?”
Ariela Barer of TV’s “Runaways” is Xochitl, a true believer in the classic mold — a coed radicalized by what she’s learned, hellbent on taking action. She might be dismissed as “just another girl who’s been to college, read a book and decided she knows how to save the world,” but nobody questions her commitment.
“We have a right to defend ourselves!”
Sasha Lane of “American Honey” is Theo, a cancer survivor and Xochitl’s best friend, someone whose flashback states the obvious. Yes, living too near petrochemical plants will make you sick. Alisha (Jayme Lawson of “The Batman” and “The Woman King”) is Theo’s more common sensical lover. She’s the most skeptical member of this crew.
Michael (Forrest Goodluck) is Native American, a nihilist who isn’t interested in the “Conservancy” his mother (veteran character actress Irene Bedard) works for and urges him into. He’s the one taking Youtube tutorials on bomb-making basics, and making some of his own.
Shawn (Marcus Scribner of TV’s “Black-ish”) is a college kid who’s done the debates but is done with the debating and the making of documentaries about environmental injustice and looming catastrophe.
Former child actor Jake Weary plays Dwayne, the guy with the most skin in the game. He’s a struggling Texan who lost his land to the pipeline’s imminent domain and wife and baby or not, is out for revenge. He knows the lay of the land and the pipeline’s Achilles Heel and, like Michael, can make things and work with his hands.
And Rowan (Kristine Froseth, who played young Betty Ford on TV’s “The First Ladies”) and Logan (Lukas Gage of “White Lotus”) are the hot, hormonal lovers, seemingly reckless, seemingly in it for the thrills.
Hearing their speeches, watching their DIY prep and picking up on personality conflicts, we can spot more than a few weak links in this chain of command. The question is not if something will go wrong, but how many things will and how they improvise, crack or let each other down on their way to their date with fate.
The pacing and flippant but considered dialogue — “Do you feel like a TERRORIST?” — make this material fly by and play lighter than it really is. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is every bit as serious as “The East,” a similar story with an entirely different target and a cast that first Elliot Page then billed as Ellen.
Director and co-screenwriter Daniel Goldhaber (the “cam-girl” thriller “Cam” was his) keeps the movie clipping along, but never so quickly that we can’t see problems coming from a mile off. Thus the predictable turns into the third act are somewhat upended by the twist-packed finale.
I like the flashback structure, which allows this picture to bolt out of the gate, the various characters sweeping into rural Texas, checking their watches and they careen towards their meeting, and a series of deadlines. Flashbacks enliven that “who they are/why they’re here” background, rather than having us follow a duller A-B-C step by step narrative.
And making it all work is the cast, all experienced but mostly just-unknown enough to give “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” a genuine indie anarchist feel. Barer, who co-scripted it, sets the “down for the cause” tone, and every distraction and potential point of friction layered on top of the other performances share that as their common starting point.
There are consequences to what they do, and they accept them with varying degrees of maturity. But they have no idea how badly things can go, which is kind of the point. As “call to action” as this “Pipeline” “project” might seem, there’s little need to say “Don’t try this at home, even in Texas” to the viewer.
Because Texas, America and the world are enough of a mess as it is.
Rating: R, violence, profanity “and some drug use”
Cast: Ariela Barer, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Jayme Lawson, Kristine Froseth, Jake Weary, Sasha Lane and Marcus Scribner
Credits: Directed by Daniel Goldhaber, scripted by Ariela Barer, Gordon Sjol and Daniel Goldhaber, based on the Andreas Malm book. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:43