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Jayme Lawson, Jake Weary, Marcus Scribner, and Ariela Barer roll a 55-gallon drum full of icing sugar into place in "How to Blow Up a Pipeline."

Two characters in How to Blow Up a Pipeline meet in a bookstore, where one is working and the other is a customer reading the Andreas Malm book that the film is based on. “There’s some good shit in there,” says the employee. “Doesn’t tell you how to do it, though.” The book, which advocates vandalism and sabotage as a method of climate activism, has a cheeky title. Cheek is the last thing on the movie’s mind, but it is a more gripping thriller than many Hollywood entries that claim that title.

The plot revolves around Xochitl and Theo (Ariela Barer and Sasha Lane), two best friends who grew up near the same refinery in Long Beach, Calif., which is likely why Theo is now dying of leukemia. They gather in the desert outside Odessa, Texas at the behest of Dwayne (Jake Weary), a rancher whose land was seized via eminent domain to build an oil pipeline. Their co-conspirators — Xochi’s college classmate Shawn (Marcus Scribner); Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson); Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native explosives expert from the North Dakota shale; and a couple of nightclub ravers from Portland (Lukas Gage and Kristine Froseth) — are there to build bombs and do the spadework, while Dwayne tells them exactly where to plant the explosives to destroy the pipeline while spilling a minimal amount of oil. By the way, one of these people is a spy for the FBI, and the movie doesn’t leave us in suspense as to which one it is.

Depending on who you ask, this movie is either directed by Daniel Goldhaber or by a four-person team that includes him, Barer, and Jordan Sjol, the three screenwriters on this project. It’s a story with no fat on it, as the plot rolls on remorselessly while incorporating skillful flashbacks about each character’s backstory and what has brought them to this end. The group is a mix of people from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and one of them gets a rise out of Dwayne by telling him that Jesus was a terrorist and they’re doing what he would do. Dallas native Lane is incandescent as the character that’s terminally ill, and Goodluck is smashing as the most focused member of the group even though Michael seems to be in a permanent cold sweat. When asked about the prospect of accidentally blowing himself up, he responds, “I don’t really care” — four words you never want to hear from the guy who makes your bombs.

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I do wish the movie hadn’t so easily dismissed Theo’s concerns that disrupting the world’s oil supply will hurt poor Black people first and foremost. It makes psychological sense that these characters wouldn’t really question what they’re doing, but that’s not an excuse for the movie not to do so. We see the aftermath of their terrorist action inspiring others to do the same, and it’s hard to believe that those others would be as careful as our antiheroes about not harming people directly. Plus, have you looked at the track record of groups who thought they could bomb their way to a better world? It’s not good.

(Also, this is another Texas movie that was actually filmed in New Mexico. The Land of Opportunity gives filmmakers better tax breaks than our state.)

Nevertheless, the craftsmanship that Goldhaber (who previously did the Netflix sex work thriller Cam) and company put into this thing is compelling, and the way that the FBI mole is dealt with is admirably slick. The old saw is that the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is which side you’re on, but a powerful film like Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers can put you on the side of the terrorists even if you despise their methods. It’s a tribute to How to Blow Up a Pipeline that it can withstand a comparison with that film.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Starring Ariela Barer and Sasha Lane. Directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Written by Ariela Barer, Daniel Goldhaber, and Jordan Sjol, based on Andreas Malm’s book. Rated R.

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