The linchpin of Breaking lies in John Boyega’s masterful, nuanced performance as Marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley. Not only is the film an indictment of the Veterans Administration, it is also a harsh look at how mental illness is dealt with in this country, especially concerning our military veterans. But more than that, it is the desperation with which Brian carries out what would be his final actions, crying out for dignity and respect but being pushed to such an extreme that he would be only remembered as a bank robber.
However, he wasn’t even robbing a bank; as the real-life story goes, he feigned possession of a bomb in order to call attention to the injustices in the VA that were keeping him from living his life. From being with his daughter, Kiah (London Covington). From being a functioning member of society. With his PTSD left unchecked and untreated, it was only a matter of time before the difficulties he faced reintegrating into civilian life would claim him. For a whirlwind afternoon, Brian’s story caught national attention as he held two bank employees hostage while trying to get his message to the people.
The London-born Boyega sheds all our notions about his abilities and steps into Brian’s shattered life, fighting not only his inner demons but external forces pushing him into homelessness. With nothing left but to resort to drastic measures to claim what little was owed him (but tied up in bureaucratic apathy), he goes about taking the bank with a confused, yet kind manner. He allows manager Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie) and teller Rosa Diaz (Selenis Levya) to let everyone else out of the establishment after passing Rosa a simple note: “I have a bomb.”
Beharie and Levya likewise fill their performances with a sublime naturalness, not forcing their characters into hysterics. They are there to ensure the safety of their patrons and fellow employees, but their duty slowly turns to trying to help Brian get what he needs to try to end this siege before more permanent measures are taken by the slowly-amassing police force outside the building. In a film full of unempathetic, business-as-usual figures, it’s striking that the only people actively trying to help Brian are fellow Black people, including police negotiator Eli Bernard (Michael K. Williams).
In one of his last performances, Williams gives Eli the calming presence necessary for Brian to listen and take heed. Whether sharing his experience as a fellow Marine to gain Brian’s confidence or getting a pack of cigarettes for a hostage trade, Williams never strays from Eli’s measured, thoughtful ways, even when having to deal with another police officer treating the situation as “just another black man who wants attention.” It is a testament to Williams’ strengths and versatility, and one cannot help but mourn the loss of such a talent.
Breaking rides on these four performances to drive its intent home. Director/co-writer Abi Damaris Corbin gives due to little else except to lay the scene for what’s happening outside the bank. He puts us squarely in Brian’s head, not knowing who’s friend or foe, much less what to do in a situation like this, as his intentions are not to hurt anyone or take the bank’s money. Through quick edits and wide shots, we see the turmoil inside Brian and the images plaguing him while real life unfolds with Estel, Rosa, and Eli. The bank in and of itself stands for the walls trapping Brian and preventing him from being, with tentative hands held out to him, hoping he’ll accept their pull toward a better way.
Corbin asks cinematographer Doug Emmett to isolate Boyega in his shots, pushing him to either side of the frame against the backdrop of the bank or its inhabitants. And when we’re center-framed on him, it’s usually in a moment of introspection or where we feel like he’s being enclosed and snared. Emmett’s photography is its own character, allowing room for motion and action, but it also uses the four edges of the widescreen frame to imprison Brian and limit his choices, which slowly dwindle to zero.
Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s script doesn’t give away more than it needs to, making us hang on every word and shade the actors bring to bear. This tactic often leaves us wanting some things explained, but it also makes us feel rather than simply see what the film shows us. And in that, Breaking evinces itself as a solemn work of art, content to let things be rather than to force what it has to say in our direction.