Breaking: Inside Man, by David Bax
With Breaking, director Abi Damaris Corbin pulls a bit of a trick on you. With its cool color palette, handheld cinematography (courtesy of Doug Emmett, whose credits include Sorry to Bother You and The Edge of Seventeen) and gimmicks like the non-diegetic rushing-air sound to let you know that things are coming to a head, it’s dressed up on the clothes of a standard modern day thriller. And, in many ways, that’s just what it is. But the screenplay (by Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah) introduces Trojan horses a distinct point of view into this familiar broth.
Despite being based on a true story, even Breaking‘s plot feels recognizable. A man holds a bank’s teller and manager hostage not for personal enrichment but in order to gain the justice he feels he’s been denied. This John Q-biting narrative has even been used once already this year alone, in Michael Bay‘s Ambulance.
Where Breaking most starkly distinguishes itself from this pattern is in the characterization of its protagonist. Brian (John Boyega) is sympathetic but not in a blandly everyman way. We care for him because he is human and complex and has clearly struggled. But the movie does not shy away from the fact that his experiences have left him deeply troubled, dangerous and reckless. We want him to be okay but, more than that, we want him not to hurt anybody, a potential outcome the film does not assure us won’t happen.
Boyega is key to all of this working in what may be the best performance of his career so far. He’s nervous in a way that’s not ticky but feels like this man’s honest, learned reaction to the way the world has dealt with him up to this point. Rounding out this great cast are Nicole Beharie as the bank manager and Michael K. Williams as the police hostage negotiator.
Careful viewers may notice that all three of the most prominent characters here are Black. The film is always cognizant of the characters’ race without ever hanging a lantern or engaging in obvious point-making. Instead, the racism that, in part, brought Brian to this point in his life and the racism that informs how the mostly white police and media deal with him don’t need to be laid out because, to the three characters who spend the whole movie talking to one another, it’s already understood. Breaking is a movie about Black people that keeps the emphasis on people.