On a day in July 2017, Brian Brown-Easley walks into an Atlanta-area Wells Fargo Bank. He requests to withdraw $25 from his account, makes some friendly small talk with the teller, and then asks her if he can have a piece of paper to write something down. As their seemingly normal interaction winds down to a close, Brian passes the teller the slip of paper, and her expression changes instantly. Written on it are four small but terrifying words: “I have a bomb.”
Director Abi Damaris Corbin’s debut feature “892” (which she wrote alongside Kwame Kwei-Armah) is based on a true story. After Brian (played in the film by John Boyega) unveils his threat, he keeps two bank employees hostage: the teller (Selenis Leyva) and the manager (Nicole Beharie). Brian wants as many eyes on him as possible: his first demand is for 911 to be alerted, for news stations to come, for as many sirens to arrive on the scene as possible. He’s trying to draw attention to his plight, and it doesn’t take long to realize that this isn’t all about the money for Brian. He doesn’t even intend to hurt anybody; it’s about principle. As flashbacks cut into the present-day narrative reveal (particularly in a phone conversation Brian holds with a news station producer, played by Connie Britton), Brian is a former Marine made destitute by his disability check from Veteran Affairs that he requires to survive being used to resolve a tuition debt without his consent. Brian wants the $892 check he feels he is owed; and he doesn’t want it from the bank, he wants it from the V.A.
“892” begins as an intimate, almost claustrophobic thriller, set almost exclusively within the interior of the bank. Brian, who suffers from PTSD and mental health issues that he hasn’t received proper help for, swings from polite calm to loud outbursts. Boyega’s performance is intense and emotionally fraught, but perhaps some restraint in his approach to the character could have made it a little easier to emphasize with him. Brian has a young daughter who he clearly loves very deeply, but the film doesn’t do enough to establish this connection for it to hit as hard as it should. In fact, outside of a few establishing scenes at the start of the film before Brian walks into the bank, almost all we know of him is that of a man who has taken some innocent people hostage. Perhaps some more introductory sequences, or even more flashbacks, could have better built up his character and lent more understanding for him and his situation.
But “892” isn’t a character drama, it’s a thriller, and the usual trappings of that genre come into play in the second half of the film especially, when the action starts to move outside of the bank and some new players are introduced. The late Michael K. Williams, in his final film role, is reliably great as the negotiator who butts heads with his colleagues while trying to talk Brian down, and Britton is good, even though her character doesn’t have much of a presence outside of her one big sequence. Leyva and Beharie bring a great deal of humanity to their roles as the two women caught in the middle of the struggle. They’re understandably afraid, but Beharie in particular conveys a lot of resourcefulness and intelligence with just her eyes.
Corbin keeps up a solid pace throughout “892,” even when the narrative shifts slightly to encompass all those additional elements. Cinematographer Doug Emmett nicely delineates between the coldness of the bank interior (so many blue tones, although the film frequently looks too dark) and the warmth of the world outside, and the sound design is exceptional. It’s consistently compelling, and the story lays bare the systemic failures that have thrown so many citizens who served their country into desperate circumstances. But by taking this story into the direction of a fairly conventional thriller, it fails to allow us to better know Brian, or hammer home its message hard enough.
Runtime: 103 minutes. Find more information about the 2022 Sundance Film Festival here.