A man walks into an Atlanta area bank.

Honorably discharged from the Marine Corps, he’s soft and unassuming, calm and friendly to the teller. 

There’s one problem though. He slides a note across the counter with the words “I have a bomb” on it and sets off a chain reaction of events with unexpected consequences.

Based on the true story of Brian Easley, the Sundance Film Festival award winning film Breaking dropped with little fanfare this past weekend in moderate theatrical release. It’s clear that Bleecker Street, the studio releasing director Abi Damaris Corbin’s thriller, has no clue what kind of a movie they have on their hands. 

Breaking should be a film in every theater in America, especially given the dearth of quality options in August, and John Boyega’s leading performance as Brian might end up being one of the most poignant and powerful of the year. 

The film feels like a blend of Al Pacino’s classic Dog Day Afternoon and films that examine what happens to soldiers when they return home and there’s no war anymore like Thank You For Your Service and The Hurt Locker.

A majority of the relatively crisp 103-minute running time happens in the bank and when Corbin’s camera is trained on Brian and his two hostages, there’s a unique depth of both emotional drama and subtle character work that isn’t often found in bigger-budget thrillers. 

The intimacy Corbin draws out from Boyega, especially as she and cinematographer Doug Emmett pull in tight on Brian’s forlorn face, frazzled demeanor and simple appearance create a surprising connection between the audience and Brian. 

This isn’t to say that viewers suffer from Stockholm Syndrome, the condition that bonds hostages to their captors. Boyega’s translation of Corbin and co-writer Kwame Kwei-Armah’s script never puts the audience in any real danger, which softens Brian’s character without diffusing any of the tension in the bank. 

Boyega shines in the film’s many emotional moments, both in flashbacks with Brian’s young daughter and in heartbreaking exchanges with the police negotiator and a television producer Brian calls to tell his story. 

Breaking is perhaps the most complex and thoughtful performance in Boyega’s career as viewers can see the weight of the world being carried on Brian’s shoulders. The way Boyega is able to emote calmly and carefully while showcasing Brian’s increasingly erratic mental health is astonishing. 

The film is boosted by a strong supporting cast around Boyega that earned the Sundance special jury prize for best ensemble in January. 

In his final role before his tragic death last year, The Wire star Michael K. Williams brings immense passion and emotional connection as police negotiator Eli Bernard. Though they never share the screen together, Williams and Boyega bring out the best in each other’s performances and the fragility of their bond is among the most compelling moments in the entire film. 

Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva as the two bank employees held hostage provide a great balance to the harrowing events with Beharie’s more calm, rational demeanor offsetting the fearful fluster of Leyva. 

The biggest flaw in Breaking comes from a lack of consistency in storytelling. When the camera is focused on Brian and his world both in and out of the bank, Corbin’s film is exceedingly compelling and transfixing. 

As things pan outside of Brian’s purview, especially in scenes featuring the police or Brian’s ex, Breaking doesn’t maintain the same gravitational pull drawing the audience in and it often takes viewers out of the moment. Some sharper editing or more well-rounded characters might have helped here, but it’s clear when Brian is in focus, Breaking really soars. 

It’s unfortunate that a wider audience will have to wait until Breaking hits a streaming service or on demand before experiencing this largely compelling independent thriller. Strong performances from Boyega and Williams as well as a heart wrenching narrative make it a film that deserves more than what it will likely find at the box office.

Smart, engaging moviegoers would be well served to seek out Breaking in the next couple of weeks while the cinema slate is lighter.

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