Review: Explosive eco-thriller ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ strays from despair

person with short hair puts hand on white pipeline
Ariela Barer in Daniel Goldhaber’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”

Two thrillers about the radical actions of eco-activist groups were released in 2013: Kelly Reichardt’s “Night Moves” and Zal Batmanglij’s “The East.” Exactly a decade later, the urgency that prompted their existence has only heightened. Despite hyper-awareness of the real-time consequences of our environmental crisis, substantial change still lacks.

As we inch closer and closer to the precipice of a climate apocalypse, a new film, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” lands with a rageful conviction about the necessary obliteration, by any means, of the greedy systems that may soon kill us all. With an appropriately life-or-death mentality, this taut manifesto of a movie from director Daniel Goldhaber (“Cam”) departs from the ideas spelled out in the book of the same title by Andreas Malm.

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Conveniently handpicked to symbolize a wide range of demographics, a collection of characters meets in the arid terrain of West Texas. Their objective is to disrupt the operations of an oil field and demonstrate the industry’s vulnerability using homemade explosives. Sharply edited by Daniel Garber, “Pipeline” is structured to transition from tense moments in the preparation and implementation of their plan into flashbacks that unearth each of their backstories and specific motivations for getting involved.


From the half-dozen kids-next-door-turned-revolutionaries, Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a vocal Latina from Long Beach, comes across as de facto leader. Her terminally ill best friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is a victim of the cancer clusters that often occur in low-income communities of color where refineries and other polluting agents are strategically placed by corporations. While everyone else is propelled by a desire for a better tomorrow, Theo’s arc is fueled by her wish to turn her tragic circumstances into a final act of resistance.

There’s also Dwayne (Jake Weary), a truck-driving, Christian-white-male embodiment of the forgotten majority the right constantly panders to in this country. And Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American youth certain that the time for peaceful engagement has passed who has the know-how to apply sophisticated chemistry with makeshift tools. Lukas Gage (“Euphoria”) has a smaller if expertly cheeky part as a member named Logan.

people wear gas masks as they work in a garage
Forrest Goodluck and Marcus Scribner in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”

In one early scene,z the nameless organization, which presumably only exists for this one-off mission, worries that the media will portray them as terrorists. Their concern is valid in a country that will harshly punish them if caught but refuses to use the same term in reference to the countless perpetrators of mass shootings. But whatever legacy lies ahead for them and their righteously intentioned deed, they feel hopeful of what it could inspire.

Segmented as the narrative unfolds — cutting between the dangerous present and their individual catalysts — Goldhaber makes clear that their brave decision to take such risks, both to their physical safety and in the charges they could face, is a last-resort roar. They see no other way forward in a crumbling reality. The mostly restrained and headstrong performances from the entire ensemble maintain that solemn sentiment throughout.

Even if a tad contrived, the fact that each member of this ratpack clan represents a distinct background ensures that what unites them is not allegiance to a singular political or spiritual ideology, but rather the notion of a shared enemy: those willing to see the planet burn for a profit. Simultaneously rousing and unnerving, “Pipeline” strays from despair. It doesn’t complicate the story with the loss of human life the way “Night Moves” does, and in that sense it can seem too neatly wrapped-up. Still, its pointed timeliness enthralls.


When Xochitl aptly explains that “this is an act of self-defense,” what she is so vehemently protecting is the chance at a collective future. Their fight then is just as much our fight.

‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’

Rating: R, for language throughout and some drug use

Running time: 1 hours, 43 minutes

Playing: Alamo Drafthouse, AMC Burbank 16, AMC The Grove