New from Sarah Welch-Larson on Substack: 16: Breaking (2022)

Abi Demaris Corbin’s film Breaking traces the mental unraveling of Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) as he walks into a bank with a backpack and a detonator. He takes the manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and a teller named Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) hostage, saying that he’ll blow the bank up if he doesn’t get the money he’s owed by the VA.

The movie’s been called a modern-day version of Dog Day Afternoon, and the comparison makes sense when you think about the plot: both movies are based on true stories about men who held up banks because they couldn’t get what they needed through legal means; both movies touch on the role of the media in desperate situations such as these. But Dog Day Afternoon revolves around the intense scrutiny its hapless robbers receive from the cameras, and the consequences of being beguiled by all that attention. Breaking chooses instead to show communication and the media primarily as a tool that can be bent to one’s will, without much thought about the unintended consequences. This treatment oversimplifies the situation in the bank even as it spirals out of control.

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Breaking is an attempt to tell Brown-Easley’s story, and to shed light on the injustice that drove him to his act of desperation. He held up the bank not so that he could get the money from someone else, but so he could get national attention—and the attention of the institution that had failed to serve him in the first place. The movie takes pains to show that he’s tried every legitimate angle to get the money he’s owed. His phone’s out of minutes, and he’s talked to everyone he can, and in return he’s been given a pamphlet about how to navigate becoming unhoused, a number so that he can return to standing in a long line under fluorescent lights at the VA, and a bruise on his face from being thrown out of the building when he protests his treatment.

Boyega is at his best when he’s calculating his next move, or when he’s reacting; before he walks into the bank, he pauses to light up a half-smoked cigarette, holding the smoke in his lungs after he takes a drag for a long time before slowly exhaling. He walks as though he’s under an intense weight, then throws himself into action when he perceives he’s in danger, hurling himself on top of Rosa’s body in a defensive reflex when he thinks he hears a gunshot. Boyega’s shoulders drop when he realizes what he’s done; a fellow soldier would understand the action, but the bank teller he’s taken hostage understandably reacts only in fear.

The film doesn’t take pains to emphasize Boyega’s physicality, which is a shame, because I felt like I had to excavate it from underneath his lines. Brown-Easley spends much of the movie talking—to Estel and Rosa, to the VA, to a reporter, to his daughter, to a hostage negotiator named Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams, who serves as an anchor for most of the good parts of the film). Brown-Easley is insistent, and he’s saddled with dialogue that explains everything the movie doesn’t trust the audience to understand. His first monologue lays out the movie’s cards on the table in its first ten minutes. The film then proceeds to belabor the same point for the rest of its runtime, telling the audience, loudly and insistently, about Brown-Easley’s plight and exactly how they should feel about it.

While the dialogue attempts to get to the heart of Brown-Easley’s problem, the rest of the movie is left scattered, forcing the audience to string together the disconnected pieces. Bernard is undermined by his colleagues at the police department as he tries to defuse the hostage situation; one police officer appears in every scene to say something cutting and then disappear completely, a rodent popping in and out of a hole. Fluorescent lights shine off the sweat on Brown-Easley’s face in a similar tone as the light that shone off the pamphlet on homelessness he was handed at the VA. A pair of bomb-defusing robots exit the building with the evidence they’d been sent in to collect, leaving tracks of blood from the crime in their wake as they leave.

Each of these pieces emphasize the cold indifference of institutions toward the people trapped within their wheels, but the film isn’t quite cohesive enough to pull these striking images together beyond its thesis that Brown-Easley was desperate, and he should not have had to be. Breaking attempts to shine a light on the very real injustice faced by veterans, but the film doesn’t manage to do justice to the situation, or to the very real people who had been caught in it.

Breaking is in theaters nationwide this weekend.

What I talked about:

Kevin and I reviewed the movie Beast, in which Idris Elba fights a lion, for Seeing & Believing this week. I don’t think the movie’s very good! But our conversation about it—and the much better documentary Grizzly Man—was excellent. Plus, Kevin broke out his Werner Herzog impression.

What I’m reading:

I tore through Michelle Zauner’s memoir Crying in H Mart in about a day. It’s patently unfair that she’s good at writing both songs and prose. Her descriptions of food, and the connections she draws between food and the people who share it, the baggage and joy that come intertwined when a meal is set on the table, are some of the best writing I’ve read all year.

What I’m listening to:

If you’re interested in arts and religion and the intersections between those things (and if you’re reading this newsletter, I suspect you are), then you need to listen to the Veterans of Culture Wars episode that dropped this week. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with critic Matt Zoller Seitz, ostensibly about his new book about the TV show Deadwood, but really about the place of faith, forgiveness, and the unknown in the

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