Within the rolling barren plains of an unassuming West Texas desert, eight resolute individuals embark on a mission of what it is to save the world. From homemade, do-it-yourself style bombs to the echoing giggles of juvenile, drunken nights; what lies ahead in this journey includes a bone-shattered leg, a bullet-punctured arm, and — a detonated pipeline.
Despite its cleverly provocative title, How to Blow Up a Pipeline should not serve as your everyday, run-of-the-mill how-to guide, nor should it incentivise you to blow up your own local pipeline (that is, without any reason, of course). Instead, Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller finds its source material and eponymous title from Andreas Malm’s non-fiction manifesto of the same name, and finely packs the anxieties of today’s climate crisis into its 100-minute duration — a feeling that you only have to look as far as the posters that enshrine our own Eastern Avenue to recognise.
Adopting the familiar Hollywood heist narrative, Goldhaber rehashes its conventions to create a non-linear, character-driven, edge-of-your-seat type piece — despite its almost implausible convenience at times. Xochitl (Ariela Barer) takes charge as the ensemble’s tentative ringleader, fuelled by the anger of her mother’s death from a “freak heatwave” and the disillusionment she feels towards the sluggish action of her environmental group. Xochitl’s best friend, Theo (Sasha Lane), joins in as one last “fuck you” to the world after she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, caused by her exposure to chemical pollutants. Dwayne (Jake Weary), a long-time Texan inhabitant, leads the group through the scrubby bushes of Texas after his land is seized for the development of oil rigs; and Michael (Forrest Goodluck) — a Native American frustrated at the passivity of his mother’s conservancy — serves as the ensemble’s resident bomb expert. Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a disheartened filmmaker; Alisha (Jayme Lawson), Theo’s reluctant, yet supportive girlfriend; and spirited couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage) also join in on the fun.
Goldhaber strings together these fresh faces and their seemingly disjointed characters under the collective disdain at the universal powerlessness we, as a generation, feel. Radicalism, the challenge of authority, and the morality of violence are some of the themes that this film explores — and characters wonder whether their efforts will be considered an act of terrorism or an act of revolution. Goldhaber tiptoes between the boundaries demarcating violent and non-violent forms of activism which often characterise youth-led movements; and encapsulates the kind of hopelessness that imbues our generation while doing so, as Xochitl echoes: “I don’t think I’m going to fix anything”. It’s a sentiment that — for many of us hoping to enact change — we know all too well.
In the same vein, Goldhaber manages to swiftly capture the raw angst and fiery rebellion that defines adolescence – in a way that feels strangely timeless for a film that is more relevant than ever. Logan and Rowan snort cocaine using the surfaces of their phones; their every movement charged with bouts of kisses and spurts of adrenaline. Theo drinks from her flask after a church therapy session, backlit by the illumination of the cross behind her; and the group indulge in liquor despite agreeing to remain level-headed during their mission. Aided by Gavin Brivik’s tense, pulsating, synth-like score and Tehillah De Castro’s grainy, 16mm, handheld cinematography, the heist feels more thrilling than it does harrowing. Phones are barely to be seen unless used for the basis of communication, and characters navigate their way using physical maps and instructions hastily scribbled onto scraps of paper; transporting you straight into the zest of the 80s. Perhaps, it’s because youth activism has always been an unwavering force throughout history.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline guarantees a gripping, adrenaline-fuelled experience, though it does not deliver a happily-ever-after, if that’s what you’re after. Goldhaber leaves you with very little beyond the film’s primary objective, other than an unsettling emptiness that intensifies at the realisation of the film’s semblance to our reality – but that’s exactly what it sets out to do. Goldhaber’s work oscillates from “Marxist propaganda” to an urgent, didactic piece of cinema; but regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is sure to offer a lasting, thought-provoking watch.