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HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE (2022). A crew of young environmental activists execute a daring mission to sabotage an oil pipeline. Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a very loose adaptation of Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

  • How to Blow Up a Pipeline
  • Directed by Daniel Goldhaber
  • Written by Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, based on the book by Andreas Malm
  • Starring Ariela Barer, Sasha Lane and Kristine Froseth
  • Classification 18A; 104 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres April 14

Critic’s Pick

Incendiary and furious, confident and courageous, the new thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline boasts not only the best title of the year so far but also the best score, cast and itchy, charged, electric directorial vision – all of it only ever-so-slightly goosed by a political softening that perhaps says more about contemporary American filmmaking than the storytellers working within it.

The breakout hit of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where its world premiere drew enough shock and awe from audiences to garner it a deal from U.S. cool-kid distributor Neon (Parasite, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed), director Daniel Goldhaber’s film will make an awful lot of people awfully angry, and mostly for the right reasons. This is the kind of nervy, button-pushing cinema that is as much a fast and tight genre exercise as it is a gleeful provocation. It will quicken your pulse, raise your blood pressure and trigger your fight-or-flight response. And you’ll be a better, and a more entertained, person for it.

Very loosely adapting Swedish academic Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name – half a climate-change activist memoir and half a manifesto arguing that sabotage is a justifiable form of protest – Goldhaber’s film is not so much instructive as it is propulsive. Following a group of young wannabe pipeline saboteurs, each of whom have their own reasons for resorting to such a last-resort measure, the movie operates through the tried and true prism of a heist flick. Most of the film’s action is spent not on actually blowing up anything, but – via flashback sequences that each pivot on a breakneck cut in the story – in assembling the team that will carry the mission through.

There is the ringleader Xochitl (Ariela Barer, who is also a co-writer and producer), a young California woman who blames climate change for the death of her mother and is sent into a downward spiral by the cancer diagnosis of her friend Theo (Sasha Lane). The steady hand of the group is Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a classmate of Xochitl whose work with a documentary crew has pushed him toward radicalization. The explosives are handled by Michael (Forrest Goodluck), an expert in homemade incendiary devices who has a bone to pick against oil companies operating in the Dakotas. The group’s lone family man, Dwayne (Jake Weary), is fighting against the government seizure of his land. And then there are the two wild cards: crusty punk lovers Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and her boyfriend Logan (Lukas Gage).

The group gathers in West Texas to execute their plan, one that relies on a dozen different things going exactly right, which of course never happens.

Building on the cues and passions of the nascent eco-terrorism minigenre (see Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves and, to a degree, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed) but steeped in the tradition of a tick-tock caper, How to Blow Up a Pipeline moves with a relentless and intoxicating energy.

Only his second feature since the 2018 horror movie Cam, the film confirms Goldhaber as a magnificent talent who is just as skilled at wringing committed performances from his cast (standouts include Weary and Froseth) as he is in building an immersive, near-tactile cinematic experience. Packaged together with Gavin Brivik’s tight electronic score and Tehillah De Castro’s rough Safdie Bros.-lite cinematography, there is a buzzing voltage to the proceedings. You will bite your nails and grip your seat.

Yet there is a nagging sense – especially toward the end, which pivots on an Ocean’s Eleven-style twist – that the filmmakers felt compelled, either by the Hollywood system or by themselves in a peremptory act to work within that very machinery, to sand the edges down just a bit. Each character is designed to invoke maximum sympathy, if not complete empathy, so we view their actions as not ideological but rather desperational.

Still, the very existence of the movie is a feat in and of itself, and will all-too-predictably flummox all manner of panic-pushers who have no such time or desire to examine its nuance and context. Is it controversial, even dangerous, to make a movie unambiguously urging illegal action? No more so than the thousands of films that squeal over wholesale murder or whose politics push the agendas of the American military. (Conversely, I can already sense the discord coming from the far left, in that any film making an anti-capitalist argument cannot truly be made within the walls of Hollywood. I mean, sure! But I’d rather audiences have access to this than a million Marvel movies.)

Ultimately, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is only as dangerous as you allow it to be. Whether you walk out of it radicalized or not might say more about you than the film.

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