Breaking is the kind of thought-provoking, character-driven film that draws you in gradually, daring you not to care as you come to know the protagonist.
Brian Brown-Easley (John Boyega) is a Marine veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who was injured in the war and now qualifies for disability benefits. As the film opens, he is being ejected in handcuffs from a government building — we aren’t sure whether it’s a prison, a hospital, or maybe both — and released onto the streets. He has a bright and adorable young daughter Kiah (London Covington) who lives with her mother, Cassandra (Olivia Washington). While talking with Kiah from a disposable cellphone, Brian is warned by a series of beeps that his minutes are running out. “Just add some credits,” she tells him. He can’t, of course, and the call ends. He is nearly destitute, living in a single room, possibly on government assistance.
It’s an important film about the problems of mental illness, disposable fathers, the student loan catastrophe, and the outrageous way disabled veterans are treated.
Frustrated and defeated, he packs a backpack, walks into a bank, and threatens to blow himself up with a bomb. But he’s not your typical bank robber. In fact, he doesn’t want to rob the bank at all. He just wants someone to listen to him. He wants a negotiator, a news reporter, anyone who will hear his story. He just wants the money that is owed him by the government. He is polite and apologetic throughout the ordeal, but with sudden outbursts of anger and frustration.
We soon learn that he has been working two jobs but has been laid off, and his disability check — now his only source of income — has been diverted to pay (get this) an outstanding student loan.
The action is slow in this film but the acting is superb. I first noticed John Boyega, who plays Brian, in the British sci-fi homage Attack the Block (2011) and again as the underutilized Finn in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. He just gets better and better. Here he has the controlled intensity and quiet delivery of a seasoned Denzel Washington — he even nods and thoughtfully says “OK” as his character processes new developments, the way Washington does in almost every movie. He has the same introspection, the downward turn of the head as he weighs his next thought before putting it into words — even the voice. It’s almost as if the British-born Boyega had studied Washington’s films while working on his American accent.
He’s not your typical bank robber. In fact, he doesn’t want to rob the bank at all.
The two bank employees, office manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Leyva) are strong and vulnerable at the same time. They’re terrified of the bomb and of Brian’s mental instability, but they aren’t terrified of him. This emotional ambiguity is portrayed skillfully by both actresses. As manager, Estel quietly takes charge, swiftly urging customers to leave the bank when she realizes what is happening at Rosa’s window and then working to calm Brian down, protect her employee and herself, and plan an escape. She’s smart and scared, bold and cautious, heroic and ordinary.
The movie takes place almost entirely within the tight confines of the bank lobby; the crowded cubicle of news reporter Tami Stackhouse (Kate Burton); the messy maze of Cass’ small home; and the car of the police negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael Kenneth Williams). All of this mimics the mental claustrophobia of Brian’s situation and contributes to the growing tension we feel.
The film builds in intensity as we empathize with the characters and begin to weigh agonizing hope against inevitable outcome. It’s an important film about the problems of mental illness, disposable fathers, the student loan catastrophe, and the outrageous way disabled veterans are treated. And it’s a true story, based on an article by Aaron Gell. It isn’t a blockbuster, but trust me — it’s well worth seeing.