In 2017, Brian Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo branch in Marietta, Ga., and, after withdrawing the last $25 to his name, told the bank teller he was carrying a bomb in his backpack. He was a man at wit’s end, the system seemingly irreversibly stacked against this former Marine, his wages garnished for a debt he said he didn’t owe. With a young daughter at home and feeling like he was out of options, Brown-Easley made his bomb threat hoping it would get his garnished wages back but knowing it would likely end in his arrest or even death. He did it anyway, and it’s a tragic day that unfolds in Abi Damaris Corbin’s heartbreaking Breaking.
John Boyega (Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker) stars as Brown-Easley in a role that is so removed from his action and fantasy work of late that it’s a refreshing reminder just how talented he really is. With a desperation that borders on the overdramatic (though in my opinion, never seeps into that territory), he creates a bridge between audience and character that allows us to truly empathize with all he’s been through. Before he makes that fateful decision at the bank, Brown-Easley is just a hard-working father, a veteran who served his country, doing his best to get by. He puts on a brave face when his young daughter, Kiah (London Covington), calls to tell him about her new puppy and the name she’s going to give it. Their interactions are sweet and sincere, and it’s clear Brown-Easley takes his role as a father seriously, approaching it from a place of pride.
Inside the bank, the teller unlucky enough to take him from the line is Rosa (Selenis Leyva, “Orange is the New Black”); she and the bank’s manager, Estel (Nicole Beharie, also in another Sundance film this year, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul), end up the only two people in the building with Brown-Easley after Estel thinks quickly and moves stealthily to get her staff and customers to safety the moment she realizes something dangerous is about to go down. Together, they do their best to keep Brown-Easley calm while mitigating their own terror that spikes in response to his every move; Beharie in particular has a powerful sense of self throughout, Estel keeping it together much better than Rosa. Contained as the actors are in the bank, its imposing brick walls and bland lobby furniture, Corbin creates a combustible sense of tension that those outside the bank are trying their best to diffuse.
The film loses a bit of its momentum when Corbin moves the action outside of the bank, but only slightly. Connie Britton is engaging enough as Lisa Larson, a reporter at the local TV station who scoops her competition by getting Brown-Easley on the phone during the affair. But it’s the late Michael K. Williams who steals the show here, his commanding presence as law enforcement negotiator Eli Bernard overwhelming any scene he is in. I could be biased, as I’m still not over the fact that we’ve lost such an incredible talent, but I think that’s only part of it here. Williams is just that good. And the combination of his and Boyega’s stand-out performances plus Corbin’s keen eye toward Brown-Easley’s struggles within a broken system make Breaking a tough but important watch.
Breaking is now playing.
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