Review: ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ is a sleek tale of environmental revolution

With Daniel Goldhaber’s stylish direction and a strong cast, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” turns a story about property destruction into a tense thriller.


Aaliya Luthra

Climate activism turns explosive as audiences learn how one might go about blowing up a pipeline. (Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Ethan Beck, Contributing Writer

What’s the cure for apathy? In “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” the tight, new environmentalist thriller from “Cam” director Daniel Goldhaber, the answer is direct action. Goldhaber and co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol look to Andreas Malm’s book of the same name to construct a thesis about property destruction as a form of protest. It’s apathy that puts the film into motion, as the plot follows eight climate activists with different and compelling backgrounds who are driven to violence as a last remaining solution. 

If market solutions and non-violent protest are still going to lead to thousands of people dying, then what else can be done to combat climate change? This is the question that plagues protagonist Xochitl — played with clear-eyed intensity by co-writer Barer — during a meeting for her college’s fossil fuel divestment campaign. After Xochitl’s mom passes away early in the film, Xochitl begins to assemble a team to attack a pipeline in west Texas. When a climate change-induced heat wave can kill your mom, it’s hard to feel like circulating a petition matters.

It’s at that same fossil fuel divestment meeting that Xochitl meets Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a hesitant but committed fellow activist. Once Xochitl convinces Shawn to help destroy the pipeline, Shawn recruits Dwayne (Jack Weary), a Texan whose home was seized by eminent domain when the pipeline was built. Xochitl also enlists her childhood best friend Theo (Sasha Lane), who’s suffering from leukemia, and Theo’s girlfriend, Alisha (Jayme Lawson). Rounding out the crew are a couple, Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), and Michael (Forrest Goodluck), who lives on a reservation in North Dakota and grew interested in violent resistance on his own.

Where “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” falters is the lack of complexity in its characters. From Dwayne to Rowan, each person is given a moment or two of characterization, plus a flashback scene that helps color in their motivations. But these often feel like the least compelling parts of the film, relying upon shorthands and bland implications to establish each character’s rationale. Early on, Dwayne doesn’t feel like a fleshed-out character, but more like a collection of vague gestures that point to his background. Thankfully, the cast of the film has the lack of material under control, balancing sympathy and anxiety in each of their facial expressions. This is where Weary’s powerful performance comes into play, providing tenderness to a blank vessel. 

Goldhaber understands that to make an argument of any form, you need to engage your audience. “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is first and foremost a thriller, allowing for discussions of eco-terrorism and its effectiveness to be a necessary supplement to its sublime visual aesthetics. Part of this stems from Gavin Brivik’s superb, Tangerine Dream-inspired electronic score, which keeps flickering synths and pulsating percussion firmly in the foreground. Most important is Goldhaber’s direction, which provides consistent and nearly exhausting visual momentum. While cinematographer Tehillah De Castro lingers on moments of beauty but otherwise keeps the camera in motion, Goldhaber plots sequences with the maximum amount of tension possible. 

More than anything, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a triumph in form. This detail is where the most prominent criticisms of the film have come from as well: It’s been said that Goldhaber has crafted a film that’s far too slick, too enjoyable to have real, revolutionary impact. These criticisms neatly bypass the fact that in order to create change, you have to get gears turning. There might be a sense that “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” comes in an overly neat and simplistic package, but that only allows for it to have a larger viewership. With clarity, there’s power — that’s where Goldhaber and co. succeed.

“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is currently showing at select theaters in New York City.

Contact Ethan Beck at [email protected].