John Boyega, Michael K. Williams, Nicole Beharie, Selenis Leyva
Abi Damaris Corbin
Abi Damaris Corbin, Kwame Kwei-Armah
By the time Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) walks into his neighborhood Wells Fargo to withdraw the last $25 from his bank account, it's obvious that he is a man broken by the war that traumatized him and an unforgiving bureaucracy willing to toss him aside. We ache for Brian, a credit to Boyega's masterfully empathetic performance as this Marine veteran who has been denied support by Veterans Affairs and whose desperation leads him to take several hostages in the Wells Fargo.
Breaking, which premiered at Sundance under the name 892, tells a story that unfolds in nearly real-time. As someone who is old enough to have grown up with Dog Day Afternoon, it's impossible to watch this film without thinking of that Pacino classic. However, Breaking manages to distinguish itself as more of a character study than an action flick and a film with a sense of resignation and inevitability radiating from every cell of Boyega's being. Boyega, who first showed up in Attack the Block and became universally recognized as Finn in the most recent Star Wars trilogy, is completely astounding here even when the script by director Abi Damaris Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah lets him down. While Breaking never completely justifies his actions here, Boyega also never lets us forget that Easley truly has been wronged even if two wrongs don't make a right especially when you're risking the lives of your two hostages no matter how many times you promise them they're not getting hurt. This is not a story we haven't seen before, but it's a story that we need to see again and again.
To be sure, there are times when Breaking falters. Cliches abound and Michael Abels' original score leans heavy into the melodrama. It's the cast that saves Breaking from narrative implosion, Boyega's disciplined yet fireball performance somehow both understated yet devastating in its precision. Boyega's scenes with Michael K. Williams, in his final role, are among the film's best and Williams leaves us with a performance that will be remembered for years. Nicole Beharie shines as Estel, a divorced mother with a military ex whose own PTSD practically bounces across the screen with every gesture, word, and impulse that Brian makes. Selenis Leyva is heartbreaking as Rosa, whose fear is palpable even as she also strikes a note of compassion recognizing the complete and utter desperation that has caused Brian's actions. Both Behare and Leyva never strike a false note, communicating as much with their physical performances as they do with their dialogue.
As a police procedural, Breaking never quite gels. It's easy to understand exactly what Corbin is going for here, however, so tonally different from the rest of the film these scenes almost reach the point of absurdity though points of impersonalization, especially toward the end, remind us that Easley's actions here were never completely about the cash but about the system that failed him. Stick around for the closing credits and get a stark reminder that some things never change.
In the end, Breaking never quite achieves the greatness that its terrific ensemble cast deserves but it features a performance by Boyega that should be remembered come awards season and is still an absolutely unforgettable film. Breaking is best in its quietest moments. These are scenes that remind us that these are human beings we're watching and this story, essentially about Brian's trauma, becomes as much about how trauma ripples across our cultural tapestry. If you're not wondering about how these characters, these people, are doing now five years later then you haven't been paying listening.
Breaking arrives in theaters for a limited nationwide release on August 26th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic