How to Blow Up a Pipeline

If the title How to Blow Up a Pipeline sounds a little incendiary, just wait until you see the whole movie. To say it’s a call to arms wouldn’t be totally accurate. Nothing here specifically encourages viewers to engage in acts of terrorism. It does, however, challenge you to seriously consider its characters’ radical point of view. Whereas many films, even those deemed “important,” offer easily digestible narratives, this one intends to provoke, and maybe even to make you a little bit uncomfortable. That quality amplifies the intensity of the story being told.

Eight disparate environmental activists have come together. They intend to blow up a section of oil pipeline that protrudes from the ground somewhere in Texas. College student Xochitl (Ariela Barer) has organized the effort. Joining her are best friend Theo (Sasha Lane), who is dying from toxic poisoning; Theo’s reluctant-to-participate girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson); Xochitl’s classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner); amorous couple Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth); and homemade bomb-maker Michael (Forrest Goodluck). Last but not least is Dwayne (Jake Weary), a red state good-ol’-boy with an especially personal, tragic reason for wanting to be involved with this scheme.

The movie cuts back and forth, showing how the characters take over a deserted house in the middle of nowhere to begin the process of making barrel-sized bombs, then flashing back to reveal how they connected with each other. We simultaneously learn what motivates each of them to take part in an activity that comes with multiple inherent risks. Several scenes have gripping conversations in which they concede blowing up the pipeline will destabilize the oil market, scaring companies in the process, yet will also cause hardships for innocent people. Listening to them weigh that against their own rationales is intellectually stimulating. Pros and cons are apparent in equal measure.

Director Daniel Goldhaber (Cam) builds suspense in two ways. First, by observing in detail how the group risks life and limb doing the necessary chemistry to assemble the bombs, then attempts to get them into place without getting spotted. Second, by cutting to flashbacks right in the middle of dramatic, nail-biting moments, so that during those flashbacks, we’re anxiously waiting to find out what happened. The movie keeps you in a perpetual state of tension through this method. Complications that arise add extra layers to that nervous quality.

Each member of the ensemble cast does an excellent job bringing their character and his/her perspective to life. To be clear, these are antiheroes. Whether or not you agree with what they plan to do, the film makes it understandable why they’ve chosen this path. How to Blow Up a Pipeline doesn’t glamorize them, but it doesn’t judge them either. Instead, it digs into the conundrum at the heart of the story, namely that when our government fails to protect the environment, acts of property damage could be a method of forcing change. Xochitl and crew have decided the benefits are worth the costs. Part of the movie’s power is that it compels you to confront the force of their argument.

Watching the film, I had no clue how it would end. All I can say is that the finale does not take any easy ways out. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is sober in acknowledging the many ambiguities and repercussions of pursuing vigilante environmentalism. It’s the kind of picture that leaves you with chills at the end. Intelligent, provocative, and stirring, this is easily one of 2023’s biggest must-sees.

out of four

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is rated R for language throughout and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.