In “Breaking,” Abi Damaris Corbin’s new thriller about Brian Brown-Easley’s real-life bomb threat at a Wells Fargo bank, the audience knows as little as the bank employees that Brian (John Boyega) is holding hostage. Most of the film is confined to a single setting, and the story unfolds in real-time, with the narrative resting firmly in the hands of a protagonist who can appear dangerously erratic. It’s a gripping thriller anchored by a career-best performance from Boyega and stellar supporting turns from the likes of Nicole Beharie and Michael K. Williams, proving that one location is all you need to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
All of those elements — the confined setting, the real-time plot structure, the mere fact that it’s about a guy holding bank employees captive — inevitably lead to comparisons to classic hostage movies like “Dog Day Afternoon.” But the film’s stars aren’t so quick to embrace the parallels. While speaking to IndieWire about the film, Boyega and Beharie — both cinephiles themselves — were quick to emphasize that this is a very different bank robbery movie than anything we’ve seen before. In fact, Boyega revealed that he’s never even seen “Dog Day Afternoon.”
“My sister was just telling me that we need to watch that because this film is being compared to it,” he said with a laugh. “It’s just not a film I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch.”
The comparison is in many ways irrelevant, in part due to the moral ambiguity at the heart of “Breaking.” After serving in the Marine Corps., Brian Brown-Easley had trouble assimilating back into American society. Faced with financial difficulties that frequently placed him on the brink of homelessness, he was unable to receive government benefits he believed he was owed due to an accounting error made by the Veterans Administration. When his pleas for help led to little more than a series of bureaucratic brick walls, he walked into a Wells Fargo bank and told everyone he had a bomb. But he didn’t want the bank’s money. He wanted the cash that the government was unjustly holding from him, and he appears to feel nothing but guilt toward the employees that he’s holding hostage
“I’ve always had a love for characters who are different,” Boyega said, noting that he was particularly intrigued by Brown-Easley because of the way he entered the bank. “I liked that it wasn’t ‘everybody get the fuck down, nobody move!’ Because I can do that. It was ‘excuse me, ma’am, where’s the check-in line?’”
Rather than revisit classic cinema, the two actors dove head first into researching the real-life events that inspired the film. Neither were familiar with Brown-Easley before being cast, but they both found themselves engrossed in the story, which often seems too insane to be believed. It was the kind of story that only life could write, which led the stars to go to great lengths in their search for accuracy.
“I just happened to be in Atlanta at the time [I was offered the script] and I thought ‘let me drive over and try to find this bank,’” Beharie said. “Apparently it had been robbed quite a few times… it’s in this very strange place. You wouldn’t want to put your port there. It’s almost like a target. And the fact that this woman I was playing was working at a place where things had gone down, and the fact that she was brave enough to do that, helped me answer all of those questions.”
In addition to scouting the real location, Boyega, Beharie and Corbin spent hours poring over every 911 call and police record from the day of the robbery.
“I was like ‘Abi, who do you know to get all this information?’” Boyega said with a laugh.
Once the research was done, the cast was faced with the unique challenge of maintaining the intensity of a real-time thriller over the course of a lengthy film shoot. Both Boyega and Beharie drew from their depth of experience as stage actors to make the magic happen. Beharie is a Juilliard graduate, and Boyega began his career on the biggest stages in London, so it was a natural transition for both of them.
“It was pretty nice, actually, kind of a fluid transition back into my origins on stage,” Boyega said. “You don’t get to go to all of these different locations, you have to bring multiple worlds into one. And I think there’s something fun about that. It made the experience quite organic for me.”
“It really was a dance,” Beharie said. “It felt like theater. That was one of the things that Abi talked about is that we should treat this like theater. Everyone stay in the stakes and stay alive, even when the camera is not going.”
The combination of meticulous research and theatrical intensity resulted in a thriller that the stars hope will fuel conversations about the copious amounts of red tape that are still being placed around government aid for veterans.
“I just hope that it brings a little bit more awareness to the plight of what people are struggling with when they already have enough on their plate,” Beharie said. “When they’ve already sacrificed enough for the country.”
“There are many people walking among us who had trouble reintegrating,” Boyega said. “And this movie does a beautiful job of speaking to that.”
“Breaking” is now playing in theaters.
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