The fact-based hostage drama “Breaking” is a kind of chamber piece, set almost entirely inside the lobby of a Marietta, Ga., Wells Fargo branch, where the pressure-cooker action simmers. Action, however, may not be the right word. Mostly the film is a character study showcasing the acting of John Boyega, who, as Brian Brown-Easley, a former Marine desperate after Veterans Affairs has missed a disability payment of $892.34 in 2017, is a cauldron of frustration and tragic decision-making. It is a compelling performance, around which nothing much happens, except Brian’s delivery of a screed against heartless bureaucracy.
The question is: Is Brian’s boiling rage, a rage compounded by mental illness, enough to raise the temperature of a film that at times involves more hot air and histrionics than actual heat?
After walking into the bank with what he says is a bomb, Brian lets all the customers and bank employees go, except for a manager and a teller (Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva). In the screenplay’s telling (co-written by British playwright, director and actor Kwame Kwei-Armah and the film’s director, Abi Damaris Corbin), Brian takes pains to reassure the hostages that he will not harm them. All he wants to do is draw attention to the injustice he has suffered so the government will right its wrong. He threatens to blow himself up but says it won’t happen before he sets the two women free.
His demand seems paltry, heightening the Kafkaesque absurdity of the scenario, while at the same time inviting other questions: Did he really think he’d get off scot-free to enjoy his $892? And then what about next month’s payment? According to the government, the money was diverted because Brian owed tuition money to a school he previously attended.
Obviously, this is not a man who is thinking clearly, which only makes the film’s looming denouement — which you can probably guess even if you haven’t Googled the case — all the more terrible, a kind of suicide mission, no matter which path events take. “So you’re set on dying?” the bank manager asks him, in a way that sounds less rhetorical than simply realistic.
There is nothing subtle about Brian’s, or the film’s, anti-VA message. Nor should there be, if the circumstances of Brown-Easley’s case are as laid out by “Breaking.” But the film’s unrelenting high pitch, paradoxically, does not intensify or sharpen the sense of drama but seems to have the opposite effect. Without the modulation of emotional peaks and valleys — without moments of quietude, against which to contrast all of Brian’s pointless, impotent rage — the film gradually grows tedious. Cutting back and forth between scenes inside and outside the bank, whether they involve phone calls between Brian and a compassionate hostage negotiator (Michael K. Williams, in his final performance) or shots of cops visiting Brian’s family, doesn’t help much.
In the end, “Breaking” feels like a foregone conclusion: a dismal portrait of a system — and a someone — already irreparably broken.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some violence and strong language. 103 minutes.