‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ Review: When Radical Change Requires Radical Action

Zoë Rose Bryant reviews How to Blow Up a Pipeline, an unrelentingly (and unbearably) tense ensemble-led ecothriller that entertains, educates, and enrages in equal measure.
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I’m 23 years old, and I can’t remember a time when the climate change conversation wasn’t a part of my life. I recall watching An Inconvenient Truth in middle school over a decade ago and thinking the world was about to end – or, at the very least, the government would be spurred to action by the damning data found in that film. And yet, here we are, in 2023, and nothing has changed. I’ve lived through five presidential administrations, and every single one – regardless of party – has dragged their feet addressing the most pressing problem facing our planet today. So when the people we put into power to protect us fail to do their job, what choice do we have but to take matters into our own hands?

That belief forms the beating heart of writer-director Daniel Goldhaber’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline, an unrelentingly (and unbearably) tense ensemble-led ecothriller that entertains, educates, and enrages in equal measure. What Goldhaber and his co-writers Ariela Barer (who also stars in the lead role) and Jordan Sjol have come up with here in adapting Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name – which argues that property destruction should be considered a valid tactic in the pursuit of environmental justice – draws on the best traits and tropes of the work of Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and the Safdie brothers. If you put the hair-raising heist thrills of Ocean’s Eleven, the colorful group of criminals of Reservoir Dogs, and the agonizing anxiety of Good Time and Uncut Gems in a blender and top it off with a sprinkle of social justice, you’d get How to Blow Up a Pipeline – and what a captivating concoction it is.

Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, and Ariela Barer in How To Blow Up a Pipeline

Over the course of the film, you’re gradually introduced to every member of this motley crew via beautifully integrated backstories – Xochitl (Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner), two college students who connect at a divestment meetup about the need for radical political change; Theo (Sasha Lane), Xochitl’s best friend who is diagnosed with leukemia as a result of growing up in an area with toxic pollution; Dwayne (Jake Weary), a Texan property owner angry about the government seizing his land under eminent domain to build a pipeline; and so on and so forth – and all have been brought together in pursuit of one common purpose: to strap homemade explosives to a prominent West Texas oil pipeline and, as the title indicates, blow it up, in order to expose the oil industry’s fragility, demand America’s attention to the cause of combating climate change, and refuse to let these corporations endanger our lives – and the planet – further.

Sure, this is technically “ecoterrorism,” but as Forrest Goodluck’s Michael says, “If the American empire calls us terrorists then we’re doing something right.” And no matter where you morally stand on the film’s subject matter when it starts, its greatest achievement is getting you to understand not just why these characters were driven to their titular cause by the end, but why it was necessary, too. In that sense, it’s almost shocking that an American film distributor had the guts to put a picture as provocative as this in theaters – one that, like its source material, advocates for the destruction of property to bring awareness to environmental issues and does so successfully. And at the same time, that successful argumentation of its central message is what makes How to Blow Up a Pipeline one of the most essential films of the 21st Century so far.

The cast of How to Blow Up a Pipeline

As I said before, at this point, what choice do we have? Goldhaber, Barer, and Sjol make that desperation painstakingly clear in their scathing script as we transition through every character’s tragic motivation and see how each has been differently – but equally – fucked over by the American government and its complete and utter apathy to the safety of its constituents and the land we live on. Our stories may not all be the same, but we all have one common enemy. And it’s not one “party” in particular, but the entirety of the 1% who profit off our pain and the plundering of our planet’s resources. This shared struggle is communicated commandingly by a uniformly exceptional ensemble, with no weak link. Everyone brings their all to the film, just as every character brings their all to this task. If they didn’t, it would all fall apart – in both cases.

Barer is a wily force to be reckoned with as the one who essentially brought this whole group together, and the rage that fuels her writing shines through in her powerful performance as well, with a tactful tenacity behind every line of dialogue and every move she makes. Lane has the most heart-wrenching subplot as the character who this “life-or-death” conflict has become most maddeningly real for, and her romance with Jayme Lawson’s Alisha is tenderly textured, with both performers sharing an unspoken acknowledgement of the stakes at hand here and how “success” for the mission still doesn’t mean success for Lane’s Theo – but they must push on anyway. Weary’s Dwayne is yet another standout (as the only non-“Gen Z” member of this troupe and the only one who resembles the conservatives these staunch leftists would typically tear to shreds) and he illustrates how all will be affected – no matter your race, religion, or political party affiliation – should radical change not be achieved through radical action.

From nearly the first frame to the last, you won’t know if these eight freedom fighters will actually be successful or not, as Goldhaber, Barer, and Sjol have structured their script with setbacks galore that threaten to stop their plan before it even begins, and Goldhaber’s deliberate direction assures that we feel every excruciating inch of our ensemble’s doubt and dread right alongside them (though he also gets one helluva assist from Gavin Brivik’s staggeringly suspenseful score, which is about to become everyone’s new obsession). But by the time this endeavor does come to an end, you’re not only left breathless by this riveting – and relentless – call to radical activism, but also sent off wanting to change the world yourself. And that’s why How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn’t just one of the best movies of the year so far, but simply one of the most unforgettable and impactful in recent memory period.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline opens in theaters on April 7, 2022.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline poster

Thanks to a scathing, skillfully structured script and deliberate direction, How to Blow Up a Pipeline isn't just one of the best movies of the year so far, but simply one of the most unforgettable and impactful in recent memory period.
Written by
Though Zoë Rose Bryant has only worked in film criticism for a little under three years - turning a collegiate passion into a full-time career by writing for outlets such as Next Best Picture and Awards Watch - her captivation with cinema has been a lifelong fascination, appreciating film in all its varying forms, from horror movies to heartfelt romantic comedies and everything in between. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she made the move to Los Angeles in 2021 after graduating college and now spends her days keeping tabs on all things pop culture and attempting to attend every screening under the sun. As a trans critic, she also seeks to champion underrepresented voices in the LGBTQ+ community in film criticism and offer original insight on how gender and sexuality are explored in modern entertainment. You can find Zoë on Twitter, Instagram, and Letterboxd at @ZoeRoseBryant.

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