Be it a biographical crime drama like Dog Day Afternoon or a more commercial thriller like Inside Man, we go into every bank heist movie with certain expectations. Breaking delivers on some of those expectations, but subverts others. This heist picture feels more downplayed than what we’re used to, which isn’t a bad thing. The smaller scale not only provides a sense of realism, but it cleverly ties into the movie’s theme. Breaking follows a man who’s been ignored by society, despite his commitment to the Marine Corps. As he’s pushed to the brink of desperation, it appears our protagonist may finally receive the attention he needs. Even then, he isn’t treated with the fanfare anticipated.
John Boyega will perhaps always be best known for playing Finn in the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy. Between Attack the Block, Detroit, and Small Axe, though, he’s demonstrated potential for more dramatic heights. He delivers another riveting performance as Brian Brown-Easley, a real-life veteran and father struggling with a disability payment. The government not only ignores his cries for help, but also the evident signs that he’s suffering from mental illness. He’s driven to hold up a Wells Fargo, but Brian cares more about getting his message across than money.
In popular media, we’re used to seeing charismatic criminals who treat bank robbing like performance art. Brian lacks any of that charisma, timidly hiding under a hoodie and only occasionally raising his voice. When he wanders into the bank, he slides a note to the teller, who’s naturally horrified. As Brian executes his plan, though, the bank employees are somewhat caught off-guard. Brian lets everyone go other than two employees played by Selenis Leyva and Nicole Beharie. Although it’s clear that Brian doesn’t want to harm anybody, his state of mind still leaves the employees and the audience on edge.
When Brian attempts to attract the authorities and the news, it can feel like talking with a cable guy over the phone. He gets nowhere fast with the other person on the line not sounding especially invested. The cops and news stations show up in time, but Brian isn’t given the platform he demands. Brian eventually gets in contact with a news station employee (Connie Britton), who has reservations about putting a bank robber on the air. The only one who seems to understand what Brian is going through is a negotiator played by the late great Michael K. Williams in one of his final performances. As a negotiator, Williams’ character seeks to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. Unfortunately, everyone else is content with resolving things as quickly as possible.
Director Abi Damaris Corbin doesn’t infuse Breaking with an abundance of style, which is fitting given the central character. There’s nothing glamorous about Brian. He’s a tragic figure whose life is valued at only $892, although it’s worth far more. As the film reaches its epilogue, it appears Brian’s efforts were in vain. One would hope that this film might bring Brian and other forgotten marines the justice they deserve. Given the state of the government, military, and society, though, Brian’s story feels like one we’ve heard before and will hear again.