$892. That’s how much Brian Easley demanded, claiming he was strapped with a bomb walking into a Wells Fargo bank. Polite yet increasingly desperate, the Marine did not even want the money from the bank. He wanted Veteran’s Affairs to pay his monthly disability check. It hadn’t come through that month, and living between those checks out of a low-rent motel, while trying to maintain child support and get his daughter a puppy, Easley had become distraught. He took his issues to the Atlanta VA first and was detained after getting flustered and getting into an argument. The details of why the payment didn’t go through and how it was possibly never communicated to him, show a short-sightedness in the treatment of PTSD-suffering Veterans. What happened is that while the VA was paying for school, if a Veteran misses enough classes, the system converts their payment to cover the classes, which a suffering Veteran with an uncertain permanent residence may never find out about. So, Easley politely held up a bank over a mere matter of miscommunication.
“They didn’t have to kill him,” that’s what protestors said and how the headlines ran after the death of Brian Easley. Abi Damaris Corbin’s new movie premiering at Sundance captures the immediate events in Easley’s life that would lead someone to rob a bank like a gentleman. Part Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and part The Old Man and the Gun (2018), the tension of the film operates at a low, constant fizzle. It never seems like Easley, played with compassion and grace by John Boyega, is a threat to the two kind women left in the bank, played with naturalistic sympathy by Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva. Rounding out a good ensemble of central characters is Michael Kenneth Williams in his final role, who is moving and dearly missed already.
It plays out procedurally. Exactly the way you expect the movie to be, it hits all the obvious beats. It’s a good film to make during the present pandemic. With a small cast and largely playing out over phones or socially distanced, it uses the confines of the bank to tell almost the whole story. Easley gets on the phone with anyone and everyone who is willing to talk. He calls his daughter and discusses which The Lord of the Rings characters to name their dog after. His wife, to say he’s sorry, but he’s broken and has really cracked now. An editor of a local news channel to tell his side of things, so the right message would be sent when this last stand inevitably didn’t work. He picked up the phone to talk to customers, calmly relaying the unusual turn of events and taking notes about their business with the bank.
What doesn’t especially work is Corbin’s direction, murky and lifelessly inert, it never allows any register above a low broil. It’s an action film that doesn’t move. A drama stuck in simple emotional manipulations. A mostly pleasant and crowd-pleasing story about a tragic event. Their direction of some readings also wildly misses the mark. When Easley first contacts the police, the operator repeats his faux threats. “Going to blow the place and kill everyone, anything else?” Because everything is so secluded and conversation-based, a tighter script with more emotional lift and heft would pay greater dividends. What’s there is only ever fine and nothing more than fine, just perfectly flat.
892 plays as a purely competent bank heist film without a bank heist. That gives it an interesting enough logline. A Veteran holds up a bank, not for the bank’s money, but money he feels is owed to him. Good enough, everyone and their father are now in. The movie squanders some of its easy potential through bland direction and a lacking script. Good acting keeps it afloat. The total of the ensemble is larger than the sum of its parts. Boyega and Williams are compelling together and bittersweet, given it’s the latter’s final acting role. Naturalistic performances and an easy pitch to any audience still make 892 a worthwhile endeavor. After all, it is an important story worth telling about the lack of proper communication of resources for Veterans. All it might have taken was an explanation. Eight hundred ninety-two dollars to save a life. What a sad loss.