Review: ‘Breaking’

During one scene in Abi Damaris Corbin’s well executed Breaking, a disgruntled veteran (John Boyega) has just taken two bank employees hostage. In the scuffle to understand (and defuse) each other with the police amassing outside, a rattle at the locked front doors sends tensions even higher. It’s just an aloof customer trying to enter the bank, but it makes bank manager Estel (Nicole Beharie) mumble to the on-hold 911 operator on her phone “you guys got to do better than this.” Spoiler alert….. things only get worse. And this small interaction is a smart example of the ways Corbin uses Breaking to address the widening divide between the have-nots and those in power reacting blindly to a desperation they won’t- and cannot- understand.

Based on a true story, the have-not in this case is Brian Easley Brown, a war veteran who is introduced to us right after he’s been handcuffed and tossed out on the street from the Veterans Affairs Administration. And all over $892 dollars, which was the film’s working title at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival where it premiered earlier this year. From that bureaucratic slight, the only option Brown sees for himself is to get his name on the front page and image of every news outlet in town, which takes him to the local Wells Fargo bank with a soft voice and hidden bomb in a backpack.

Like all good bank robbery thrillers, Breaking soon shifts into a minimalist stand off setting. Inside the bank is Estel (a wonderful Nicole Beharie who showed her immense presence in Miss Juneteenth) and Rosa (Selenis Levya). It’s Estel’s quick thinking that gets most of the customers and her co-workers out before Brown makes his intentions completely public. She gives an amazing performance that shudders against complete emotional breakdown while barely holding it together.

Tensions outside the bank are just as fragile, but for the law enforcement assembled there, Breaking makes it clear their menacing edge is for bloodshed rather than negotiation, led by the swaggering Jeffrey Donovan in a performance basically carrying forward his macho excess from Sicario (2015). The only level head outside falls on the capable shoulders of Eli (Michael K. Williams), whose role here only makes us miss him all the more. Establishing both a reverent line of communication with Brown inside the bank and his estranged wife (Cassandra Washington) and daughter (London Covington) at home, the film eventually settles on their amiable conversations as the only real human connection possible in such a high stakes chess game of emotions.

Even if the film can’t rewrite history and it barrels towards its inevitable denouement, Breaking is a memorable effort not for how it ends, but how it gets there. There’s a small hope that cooler heads will prevail. From all accounts, mostly from the hostages themselves plus the 38 minute phone conversation Brown had with a local reporter (played here by Connie Britton), his intentions were ill guided but gauged not to hurt anyone but himself. Of course, he goes about things the wrong way. If anything, Breaking laments that we’ve lost the ability to listen and only pay attention to the brusque.

Breaking opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday August 26th.