Blood For Oil

Indie thriller ‘How To Blow Up A Pipeline’ sets a high bar for eco-activist cinema

The indie thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline is uniquely successful on several fronts. It adapts a manifesto into a compelling action movie! It updates the spirit of Edward Abbey’s ever-relevant, but thuddingly sexist, eco-prankster novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. Plus it boasts the title most likely to get you in trouble with Big Brother merely for Googling it. Impressive.

HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by:  Daniel Goldhaber
Written by: Ariela Barer, Daniel Goldhaber, Jordan Sjol
Starring: Ariela Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage
Running time: 103 min

This low-budget flick takes place, mainly, in West Texas, where a group of young, furious climate activists work to pull off the titular event, meant to disrupt oil and gas sales and send a message they feel the world is otherwise unwilling to hear.

The group’s ringleader is Xochitl (co-writer Ariela Barer), who’s recently lost her mother to a disease that, ‘Pipeline’ implies, was caused by living near a power plant. There’s her childhood friend Theo (Sasha Lane), now sick with leukemia, also seemingly tied to that plant, and her indulgent girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson). There’s Shawn (Marcus Scribner), Xochitl’s college buddy who wants to do more than the interviews he’s been conducting as a fledgling eco-journalist. And cowboy Dwayne (Jake Weary), a military vet with a pregnant wife. The pipeline has already poisoned his property.

Finally, and most compellingly, there is Michael (Forrest Goodluck), a Native American North Dakotan who’s been studying bomb-making as an outlet for rage at the way fracking operations have ravaged his community. On the lighter side, there’s dilettante punk couple Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage, fast becoming the go-to for goofy rich f-boy characters), pretty trust-funders, perhaps, with a chip on the shoulder.

That’s a lot of backstories, but the plot juggles them deftly as flashbacks set into the tick-tock of  assembling the bomb on abandoned farmland. The film looks faded, dusty, deservedly evocative of the heyday of smart ‘70s thrillers. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the script tosses in a humanizing flash of humor here and there. These kids aren’t experts, after all, and there’s a fair amount of trial and error involved in just getting all of the physical ingredients together. Also, they’re kids, and they’re not above getting ill-advisedly toasted the night before the big day.

But the script sets starry-eyed, late-night freshman monologuing at a minimum; it never talks down to its idealistic characters or audience. While there’s a certain amount of naivete baked into the central act, the film comes down firmly on the side of explaining quite plausible reasons each has arrived here. With the exception of Logan, most of these people hail from working-class backgrounds, and can speak to the lived realities of climate change fallout, the kind that statistically fall far heavier on the non-privileged and the non-white.

I haven’t read Andreas Malm’s source material of the same name, so I don’t know how far into specifics the book goes, but it’s fascinating to watch the sheer mechanics of putting together the incendiary devices against time constraints and the constant threat of someone busting them. It’s like Ocean’s 11 with a fiery conscience, expertly detonated to inspire discussion among the disenfranchised and irritate the comfortable.

Eco-activism hasn’t fared well onscreen in Hollywood this century. 2013’s The East starred Alexander Skarsgard as a climate warrior-cum-cult leader. 2014’s Night Moves made Jesse Eisenberg’s ringleader a straight-up murderer. And in 2018’s First Reformed, a climate activist goes off the rails and kills himself.

The messaging here, on the contrary, is fairly straightforward. The script treats its protagonists like they’ve got a point. No wonder it was a bitch to produce. “No one would meet with us. We were told a couple of times straight up, like, ‘Our studio will never fund this. We are funded by oil,’” Barer told The Cut. She also attributes much of the film’s infectious energy to the fact that “there was really no one over, like, 35,” on set. Ouch, but also fair. This is masterful Gen-Z agitprop. No notes.

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Sara Stewart

Sara Stewart is a film critic and a culture and entertainment writer whose work is featured in the New York Post,, and more. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Sara's work can be fully appreciated at But not on Twitter, because she’s been troll-free since 2018.

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