'892' Review: John Boyega Stars In Abi Damaris Corbin's Tightly Constructed, But Cold Drama [Sundance]

On July 7, 2017, former Marine Brian Brown-Easley, dressed in a grey hoodie, brandishing a bruised cheek underneath his glasses, walked into an Atlanta area Wells Fargo bank claiming to possess a bomb. Politely he allowed the majority of the bank’s customers and employees to leave, except for two. He had one demand: That the Department of Veteran Affairs, who took away his $892.34 disability check, give him his money. From this tragic real-life story arises Abi Damaris Corbin’s tightly constructed, yet cold film, “892.” A work explaining how the safety nets meant to protect the voiceless failed an Iraqi war vet, a Black man.

Brown-Easley (John Boyega) enters the bank as an enigma. He’s a single father to his daughter, Kiah (London Covington). He lives away from his estranged wife, Cassandra (Olivia Washington), in a low-rent motel. All the employees leave the bank except for the teller, Rosa (Selenis Leyva), and the manager, Estel Valerie (Nicole Beharie). These side characters, initially, hold great depth, partly owing to these actors’ assured movements: Beharie, especially, always a great facially aware actor, uses her emotive eyes to communicate Estel’s calm, experience, and awareness. It’s an informative introduction to a character, making one wish the actors and picture stayed in that subtle register.  

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As the narrative progresses, propelled by Brown-Easley asking for media attention, Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s script loops in a local reporter, Lisa Larson (Connie Britton), and police negotiator, Eli Bernard (the late, great Michael Kenneth Williams), who are trapped within their own exploitative systems. Through flashbacks, unveiled through a few seamless cuts by editor Chris Witt, Corbin recounts the many setbacks that led Brown-Easley to this decision: The ways the VA not only took his money, without his consent, to pay down a supposed school debt, and how they did little to help recover his funds. By the end, we discover that it’s not about the money at the bank. For this man, it’s really about the principle.  

Much of “892” operates under Corbin’s rigid watch. The work by DP Doug Emmett (“Sorry to Bother You”) oscillates between warm, brown tones and cool, blue moods. Tight close-ups allow the actors to visually speak, communicating the internal among the staid confines of the bank. Every aesthetic decision makes sense. But the film often feels too controlled, too taut for any of the intended pathos to really rise to the surface. 

In this tactical film, Corbin tries to pull some emotional resonance from the close connection Brown-Easley shares with Kiah. Their relationship brings reminders of the touching father-daughter bond that propelled Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station,” which added a tenderness and depth to Oscar Grant III that the world needed to know. A similar depth eludes Cobrin and Kwei-Armah’s thin, over-calibrated script. Easley enters the bank as an enigma, and when the film ends, he remains one.

Real-life reports from the hostages recount how Easley remained polite. He never raised his voice. Boyega, sporting a gravelly voice, touched by a slight southern twang, plays him as respectful and concerned, rarely making eye contact, his head tipped in a deferential manner. But he doesn’t portray him as quiet: Much of his performance, barely helped by the shallow script, is reduced to him yelling. He never feels like a real person, rather a totemic figure meant to lay bare the inequities of the VA, the police, and the media.

Corbin demonstrates how the failures of a safety net meant to assist veterans, while probably exploiting them, pushed this amiable man to a reckless decision. The muddiness of the media working with authorities to catch an exclusive story doesn’t land as neatly. Britton does her best to carve some contours into Corbin’s reedy critique of a ravenous media, but it’s a component that’s been done better elsewhere, with far more to say. Likewise, Williams, in a visceral performance, can’t quite land the good cop amongst the bad apples cliché (Jeffrey Donovan plays an undercutting cop opposite Williams, and his character’s reasoning is heavy-handed).   

Throughout “892,” the wait for something authentic, beyond the performances to appear on screen, is interminable. Beharie and Leyva as the bank employees start as real people, but unfortunately, the film doesn’t keep that same energy. The mood is always slipping into being a thriller: Upticks in tempo see overhead shots of the police swarming around the bank, unnerving close-ups are meant to leave the heart-pounding way, and melodramatic shouting matches occur. This picture, however, needs to be a character study of Brown-Easley. 

The star-studded cast does good, dependable work. There are visual flairs that linger in the mind: For all its faults, this movie has a striking look to it. And Corbin’s best intentions are genuine. The ending comes with a startling bang. But what remains when the dust settles? By the end of the over-tightened “892,” unfortunately, a memorialization to Brown-Easley’s plight, we know little about the actual man. [C-] 

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