John Boyega Shines as a Man on the Edge in BREAKING

Abi Damaris Corbin finds the humanity in tragedy in her solo directing feature debut

Even if you don’t know the true story Abi Damaris Corbin’s Breaking is based on, you know exactly how the film is going to end from the second it begins. Normally, that kind of predictability is a death knell for a film. In the case of Breaking, however, it’s something else. From the moment it begins, Breaking is practically dripping in the desperation and impotent rage driving its protagonist, a Marine veteran who feels used, broken, and destroyed by the institution that he dedicated himself to. Playing out essentially in real time, Breaking is about the futility of seeking humanity and empathy in monolithic institutions that have no room or use for such things.

Breaking is based on the Task & Purpose article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him” by Aaron Gell, which tells the tragic story of Brian Brown-Easley’s three-hour standoff with Georgia police in 2017. John Boyega plays Brown-Easley, a Lance Corporal with the Marines who is in dire financial straits. After failing to receive a disability payment from the Department of Veteran Affairs and finding himself on the edge of homelessness, Brown-Easley walked into a Wells Fargo branch near Atlanta and passed the teller a note saying that he had a bomb in his backpack.

At its best, Breaking balances two main threads. First, there’s the story of Brown-Easley, a troubled but sympathetic man who takes drastic measures because he feels like nobody will listen to him. The second thread examines how people and institutions trained in violence can fail—almost by design—in the face of situations that require empathetic responses rather than cold-blooded, tactical ones. Both storylines are potent and provide the film with an all-consuming sense of dread that becomes more intense as it marches toward its inevitable conclusion.

Boyega anchors the film and gives a performance that’s among his best work (along with his work in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe). Brown-Easley is a man at the end of his rope, but Boyega plays him as a man who sees things with the clarity that comes with total defeat. With snipers perched outside the bank, Brown-Easley constantly assures his hostages that he means them no harm, even going so far as to promise to let them out of the building before he detonates his bomb. There’s a scene where Brown-Easley dives on top of a bank teller to protect her from what both they think is a gunshot; it’s an action that explains Brown-Easley as well as any monologue could.

For most of its runtime, Breaking is a showcase for Boyega, until the late Michael K. Williams shows up as the negotiator tasked with de-escalating the mess. Williams is good, as always, and he provides the humanity lacking from the police response to Brown-Easley’s actions. Most of Williams’s dialogue is boilerplate material, but his expressive face says everything else. The phone calls between Brown-Easley and Williams’s character, Eli, draw attention to the weaker elements of Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah’s script: Most of the scenes with the police feel formulaic. There’s a certain tension to these scenes, but the overwhelming feeling is that of the perfunctory. Everything viewers need to know about the police’s side of the story can be gleaned from the first POV shot from a sniper’s rifle. Everything else feels superfluous.

Breaking is at its best when it allows viewers to sit with Brown-Easley and let the tension and claustrophobic nature of his predicament simmer; on the back of Boyega’s haunted and haunting performance, Breaking has a similar effect on viewers. Brown-Easley’s story is unique, but there are so many other stories out there that touch on similar themes, all of which present a bleak picture of a situation desperate for reckoning.

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