Brian Brown-Easley, played by John Boyega, is not a very good bank robber. He isn’t trying to be. If anything, he goes out of his way not to seem like too much of a threat. When he hops over a desk and inadvertently frightens a kind bank teller, Rosa (Selenis Leyva), he apologizes. After scribbling down a note about having a bomb, he swiftly moves to allow every customer in the place to leave. Calls come in from frustrated bank customers and he takes down notes for the employees when they get back — because it is his intention for them all to come back, when this is over. Police on the phone ask his race and what he’s wearing — they want to know who their sniper ought to be aiming at, is what Brian figures — and Brian tells them that he’s black, then quickly clarifies that he is affiliated with no group. He is on a mission, but he is not a terrorist. And in fact he does have one key association: the U.S. Marines. He is a vet with two tours in Iraq under his belt, and he has the psychological debts to prove it. He is prone to rapid PTSD reflexes, a certain jumpiness that can make people in a hostage situation nervous. Why is he doing this? He’s not even here to collect much money: only $892 dollars, money that he doesn’t even want from the Wells Fargo that he’s holding hostage. That’s a sizable sum, for many — for Brian, certainly. But it is not exactly ambitious. Nothing worth robbing a bank — risking death — over. Brian dies for it anyway.
This is not really giving anything away. Abi Damaris Corbin’s Breaking, co-written with playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah, is based on the true story of Lance Corporal Brian Easley, who died in 2017. The film was carefully adapted from Aaron Gell’s 2018 article “They Didn’t Have to Kill Him,” which has a title so apt that Googling the headline brings up a depressing array of articles about police shootings. Yet without even knowing this, you can feel the ways that Corbin has instilled a grim knowledge of death into this story. Doug Emmett’s cinematography and color grading find the shadows in the light, the humanity in what could easily resemble a more procedural thriller, and the savvy editing, with its careful insertion of cops’ gazes and glances, adds subtle menace to the film’s thriller pace. As the police line up outside of the Wells Fargo that Brian has secured with threats of a bomb, taking two bank tellers as hostages, we see an uncertainty in the members of the SWAT team’s eyes that can only imply a quick-trigger impulsiveness, a mistake that’s bound to be made.
This and the acting are what set Breaking apart. Hostage situations in thrillers are nothing new — and of course this movie knows what it owes to famed examples of the genre, chief among them Denzel Washington’s 2002 film John Q., which, like this movie, is a hostage thriller attached to a social cause, a heated but sympathetic, worst-case-scenario imagining of what can happen when a member of the social underclass has had enough. There, the enemy was an HMO that refused payment for a dire procedure. Here, it’s the V.A., which has denied Brian the benefits he needs and seems unlikely to make amends or, more urgently, give him his money. Brian doesn’t really want the bank’s money. He wants the V.A. to make things right. He wants the news to capture these events as they unfold, not because the bank robbery itself is at issue, but because he wants the public to hear his story.
Breaking gives Brian a sympathetic audience. Boyega more than holds his own here, seeming older than he is, more worn-down. The film supplies him the necessary details — a family that he cares for, a certain desperation in his lack of money, flashbacks to his experiences at the V.A. that outline both his frustration and his powerless sensitivity — but Boyega takes them and runs with the role, giving even his grey hoodie (a memorable real-life detail) a sense of character. Every moment of danger is, in his hands, rendered into a moment of necessity and regret. Leyva, who with Nicole Beharie plays one of the bank employees trapped inside with Brian, threads her role with regret, too, and raw, believable fear. Both women give masterclasses in thinking on their feet, playing people in a desperate situation that are afraid for their lives, yet understanding. They want to help Brian, and not only for their own survival’s sake. Connie Britton plays the newscaster that Brian is able to reach, the person who, like those women trapped in the bank, takes care to be realistic about what’s happening — a man who says he has a bomb is to be handled carefully, no matter how sympathetic he is — while also pursuing the truth of Brian’s story behind the scenes.
It’s Michael K. Williams, though, who may generate the most discussion. This is the actor’s last screen role, and it could not be better suited to his qualities as a man and performer. In a movie that for the most part depicts policing as a failure — not only because of what happens to Brian, but because of an overarching lack of care, a tendency toward violence rather than understanding, and a remarkable slowness to act, on all fronts — Williams gives us a police negotiator who tries to understand Brian man-to-man. That is his job, of course, and the part is well-written: He doesn’t need to say that he’s seen some shit for you to know as much from his brief, carefully doled out moments of self-description. Williams doesn’t even appear until 40 minutes in, but he doesn’t need more time to make the role sing. This was an actor who couldn’t help but suffuse every role with an immediate, lively sense of first-hand experience — and this, you sense, is the kind of reassurance that Brian needs. Losing Williams meant losing an actor who could reasonably, brilliantly give us men like this onscreen, whose hard lives didn’t define them as a limit, but rather gave them a means to survive anything else that’d interject into their lives. A means to understand and make sense of a man like Brian, whose central instinct is to try to make others understand, however flawed his methods. Other actors might have played this role. But not as convincingly or purely as Williams. Breaking is a family affair, a film that works because every person in its cast, even those playing the “villains,” gives you a character whose flawed humanity is worth believing. Flawed humanity was Williams’s domain. Breaking is a testament to that. It will go down as yet another fine example of why the actor is so sorely missed.