“892,” the debut feature of director Abi Damaris Corbin, gets off to a slow start. Shots linger on Brian Easley (John Boyega) as he trudges alongside a highway, talking on a prepaid flip phone with his daughter. He lights up a cigarette outside a Wells Fargo before he goes into the bank, and the needle finally drops — he has a bomb.
In the mold of “Dog Day Afternoon,” “892” is a bank hold up chamber drama and spotlighting of people who have been relegated to the margins of society by top-down structures. But where “Dog Day Afternoon” garners sympathy for its characters organically and in postscript, “892” endeavors to emotionally control viewers from start to finish, and seek to endear Easley by virtue of cheap voyeurism.
The film constructs itself in a way where Easley’s backstory is revealed to the two bank tellers he takes hostage, played by Nicole Beharie and Selenis Leyva, and to the audience indirectly, mediated by phone conversations he has with the media, authorities or his ex wife (Olivia Washington) and daughter (London Covington). This premise is about as far as Corbin’s creativity extends, however. What follows is sterile and cliched to an extent that it undermines the emotional resonance of a film where emotional resonance should be paramount.
Significant time is devoted to examining and indicting the axes of government bureaucracy that drove Easley to hold up the bank. In fragmented flashbacks that unspool his backstory with lethargy and stale, contrived dialogue. It frontloads all the action and intrigue, then spends the remainder of the bloated runtime scrambling to pick up the pieces and assemble them into not only something coherent, but profound.
Adapted from a true story, it’s unclear what would be gained by a viewer who was already familiar with the Brian Easley case: The film is less a film and more a scripted reenactment. Writers Corbin and Kwame Kwei-Armah saw the potential in leveraging endemic media sensationalism to lend the film some much needed depth, but by the time they remember to weave it into the script, it’s too late to follow through. What normally would have enough force to kick “892” into a higher gear fades out of the screenplay’s pages nearly as swiftly as it arrived.
For a film that sets out to devastate audiences — the principles of this pursuit notwithstanding — it seems to be at a loss for the best way to land its desperately sought after emotional punch. It is wont to repudiate specifics for broad strokes: an unnamed mental illness akin to bipolar disorder that afflicts Brian in bouts, or phone conversations with his young daughter that sound as if they were lifted from an AI-generated script that was tasked with watching every movie featuring a child and generating a composite of them.
It often feels like “892” is trying to explain why the government defaulting on a loan it owes to a veteran is bad and indicative of broader institutional failings to support those that the system so heavily relies on. Condescension of this variety is a strange and convenient tone to take in a film aimed at Sundance goers and those who follow suit, socially and politically. Steering clear of creative ornaments and flourishes may have seemed, in theory, to be the most realistic approach to a highly realist film — one that derives from a true story ending in tragedy.
But it has the opposite effect of rendering the story hollow, moralizing and void of any emotional core with sufficient structural integrity to endure beyond the current moment. “892” aspires toward longevity. A couple of times it comes close, with naturalistic and devastating performances from Boyega, Leyva, Beharie and Michael K. Williams in his final role. Yet, most of the time, it just feels muddled, pandering and sluggish.