By the end of the year How to Blow Up a Pipeline is sure to make a few best of the year lists. It certainly is one of the best films of 2023 so far, even if it’s only 4 months into the release slate. It’s a film that comes out of nowhere and sucker punches you in the jaw from every angle imaginable, leaving a lasting impression not only from the subject matter, but from the effort as a whole from the ensemble cast to the writing to the score and direction. From the opening moments to the final scenes, How to Blow Up a Pipeline offers a gripping, adrenaline fueled ride that never once lets up on the explosiveness of its characters journeys.
Based on the novel of the same name by Andreas Malm and adapted into a pulse pounding heist like thriller by Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol and Daniel Goldhaber, the latter also serving as director, the very foundation of the film explores the possibility of domestic terrorism and extreme activism to evoke real societal change in the world. There comes a moment, the night before the plan gets set in motion where the 8 anti-heroes (depending on who you ask) discuss real life counterparts. Historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement to Jesus using terrorist tendencies to spark a revolution that would cause a change in the world. It’s both a bit humorous and self aware, flipping the switch of the lightbulb in the minds of the characters.
And their ideologies are not entirely wrong. Harsh, but they come with sound arguments, even if the influence of drugs and alcohol are involved.
Goldhaber’s film opens with the group of 8 environmental warriors all meeting in a desolate location in West Texas. From there, they meet for the first time, some of them in person, and begin to get to work. Among the group there is no real leader – each has a specific job to do, and they all go about their business, completing their tasks and pulling their weight. If there was a mastermind, someone keeping the group in-line to what has been painstakingly planned for some time (no specific time frame was given, nor does it need to be), it would be Xochitl (Ariela Barer). Goldhaber and cinematographer Tehillah De Castro put the perspective through her gaze while everyone else still has their own motivations for joining this radicalized group.
Among the small group include Shawn (Marcus Scribner) who meets Xochitl in college in Chicago in a divestment group, Theo (Sasha Lane) one of Xochitl’s friends from Long Beach California, Alisha (Jayme Lawson) Theo’s partner, Dwayne (Jake Weary) a rancher living in Texas, Rowan (Kristine Froseth), Logan (Lukas Gage), and Michael (Forrest Goodluck) the self-taught bomb maker, making videos using household items fed up with oil rig workers who come to his home state of North Dakota for work.
Both Rowan and Logan are the clear rebels in this already rebellious group. Both openly going against the wishes to stay sober with a clear mind and the thought of this plan raising the hormones and blurring the lines between duty and the rush of excitement. Going back to the scene where the 8 all take an edge off before the big day, it’s decided that to pull off this demonstration of domestic terrorism, each member would be clean and levelheaded but for 8 young people, it’s easier said than done.
Based on how the film ends up, it’s the little decisions straying from the set path that sets the climactic third act up for a smooth landing dramatically.
Throughout the runtime that lasts 104 minutes, Goldhaber keeps a tight grip on the narrative, delivering on an engaging experience especially during the interwoven flashback scenes. Though they are brief, these scenes are crucial in understanding each members motivations for blowing up a pipeline in Texas. Upsetting the establishment comes with a heavy burden and every member of this group has paid a price surrounding climate change. No one is forcing these diverse people to carry out this plan.
Every point of view given is rightly justifiable, the mounting tension and anger can only boil the pot for so long before spilling over. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is act of the pot spilling over – the rush of searingly hot water flowing non-stop is exactly the point of the film. When one person does it, more will have the courage to stand up and fight for what they believe in. If no one else is willing to get their hands dirty and set an example for environmental conscious people to do something instead of saying and thinking it, why not these people.
The film is at its most enticing during the day of the explosions. The plan is to blow up the pipeline in two different spots without spilling a drop of oil. For the most part, the plan goes as smoothly as possible with minor disruptions creating the perfect amount of chaos and mounting tension that will keep you on the edge of your seat.
For 104 minutes, Goldhaber has the viewer where he wants them – locked in, hanging on every word and action taken. De Castro’s grainy, low budget guerilla stylized aesthetic puts us right in the heat of the process as if we’re part of the group with our own tasks to accomplish. Complemented with this stylized look of the film is an adrenaline pumping score by Gavin Brivik. Both elements along with Goldhaber’s direction elevates the source material into a new medium where inspiration can be found when cast in a wider net.
Overall, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is undoubtedly one of the best thrillers of the year and an achievement in environmental based storytelling without being too heavy handed and cliché. The right amount of steady tension is embedded in Goldhaber’s film with a bulletproof script and a committed ensemble that all bring their A-game. Going along with the novel in some capacity, it’s the question of morally compromising actions that speak the loudest. How long can pacifism work for until someone finally takes matters into their own hands. At the rate the world is evolving, and climate change is becoming more of an issue, violence may be inevitable.
Screenplay By: Ariela Barer, Jordan Sjol & Daniel Goldhaber
Directed By: Daniel Goldhaber
Music By: Gavin Brivik
Cinematography: Tehillah De Castro
Starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard
Edited By: Daniel Garber
Release Date: April 21, 2023
Running Time: 1 Hour 44 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Based On: How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm