TEXAS, USA — The most frazzled bank robber since Benny Safdie in “Good Time,” Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is beyond a point of no return by the time we meet him in “Breaking,” the scattered feature debut for Abi Damaris Corbin. A malicious low rumble and tense strings by composer Michael Abels accompanies Brian as he calls his daughter, a note of regretful finality in his voice, as well as when he later tinkers with colorful wires in a dark motel room.
It isn’t a spoiler to say Brian’s fate is sealed once he enters a bank the next morning, not when the intrigue of “Breaking” centers around the question of which force’s hands will bring about the end of the prolonged holdup that ensues (and under what moral conditions). Those who recognize Brian’s name from 2017 headlines will have even more of a head start. But “Breaking” asserts itself early by emphasizing how little of a plan Brian seems to have, and how it isn't temptation that's fueling his escapade but rather the anger of a military veteran for whom help has proven maddeningly elusive.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill heist story, in other words. For one thing, Brian isn’t technically conducting a heist at all. Instead of demanding that vaults be opened or cash registers emptied into a burlap sack, he seeks a different kind of currency: the attention of a Veterans Affairs department which spurned him of his disability check.
Inside the bank, as customers quickly shuffle out, Brian tries unsuccessfully to assert control. He’s threatening to the employees, but apologetic. Forceful, but out of his comfort zone. The character is slipping chaotically between what he wants to do and what he thinks he must do, and while the captivating Boyega credibly uses that volatility to chip away at Brian’s backstory, the movie – which soon burdens itself with trying to stuff an issue-film peg into a B-thriller-shaped hole – isn’t quite as confident. When Nicole Beharie’s manager implores Brian to take money from the bank itself and let them go, we feel her exasperation a bit too keenly, and may even equate it to boredom once the 70-minute mark has passed.
“Breaking” is a movie of sweaty desperation rather than gleeful thrills. Or at least that’s how it begins, before widening its scope in an attempt to bristle against various institutions – law enforcement and news media, most predominantly – blurring its focus in the process. Far from the first time the movies have diagnosed this country’s ill treatment of those who fought for it, Corbin’s screenplay (cowritten by Kwame Kwei-Armah) is most effective when it’s slowly unspooling the details of a backstory that nudged Brian to this precarious position, as organically as if they were his own reflections. It’s a rare moment of true dramatic potency when we learn how much he’s been cheated out of, the severity of Brian’s threats offset by the ostensible insignificance of what he’s trying to win back. And Boyega, continuing to carve out a dynamic post-”Star Wars” career, is a captivating churner of the viewer's sympathy.
But any sociopolitically sharp insights the film offers are blunted by comparatively incredulous popcorn-fare pivots, including the arrival of a virtual armada outside; indeed, most of the second half’s drama derives not from what’s happening onscreen but from the inescapable suspicion that “Breaking” might’ve struck a stronger cord had it remained firmly inside the bank, its finger on a more consistent tonal key.
Instead, the film loses stamina, bleeds intention, destabilizes its perspective as we spend time with Connie Britton’s news producer and Michael K. Williams’s lightly treading police commander (the late Williams, for what it’s worth, is quietly magnificent in one of his final roles). “Hell or High Water” was a similar concoction of character study and crime picture, but its ingredients were far better-proportioned. Instead of providing a multipronged examination of a vulnerable man who continues to be exploited even in his final hours, “Breaking” has the feel of a movie continuously distracting itself, to the point that it must resort to dramatic shorthand when Brian reconnects with his daughter.
It could be either “Breaking’s” grand purpose or Corbin’s grand escape hatch that much of this becomes moot when violence finally unleashes itself. For “Breaking” to drift idly on microwave-dinner suspense and Brian’s minimal borrowed time only to end as abruptly as it does darkly underscores the systemic inevitabilities that plague Brian—first as a veteran, then as a barricaded Black man.
A movie about how indifference is a central cog in the American machine, “Breaking” presents how those systems are better equipped to shatter than to repair. But it could’ve resonated more strongly by more carefully tracing the cracks first.
"Breaking" is now screening in theaters. It's rated PG-13 for some violent content, and strong language.
Starring John Boyega, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva, Michael K. Williams
Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, written by Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah
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