The title of the new indie film Breaking has multiple meanings. The film—which tells the tragic true story of marine veteran Brian Brown-Easley—is about one man’s brokenness, the breaking point he reaches when he feels out of options, and the broken systems that fail those who sacrifice so much for their country. It also refers to the “breaking news” culture where the media wields enormous but doubled-edged power to both draw attention to injustice and risk trivializing it as a spectacle for clicks and ratings.
Directed by Abi Damaris Corbin, a Christian, Breaking (rated PG-13) feels akin to Old Testament prophecy in the sense of unmasking sin and injustice and revealing its grave consequences—both on the individual and systemic levels. It’s a hard film to watch. It leaves viewers not with easy answers about who’s most to blame but with an overall unease about a world where, when enough people say “that’s not my problem,” injustice prevails and suffering spirals.
Another recent film that explores similar themes is Jordan Peele’s sci-fi thriller Nope (rated R). While the two films are very different (Breaking is based on a true story; Nope is in the UFO genre), they share similar concerns, and not just because both feature African American protagonists. Breaking and Nope circle themes of sin (both individual and corporate) and its consequences, as well as the ugliness of exploiting suffering for the sake of spectacle.
Wages of Sin
Originally titled 892, Breaking premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award for the ensemble cast. The film follows Easley (British actor John Boyega in a remarkable performance) as he takes two bank employees hostage, not to rob the bank but to get the attention of authorities who might listen to his (arguably valid) grievances.
What’s his beef? He failed to receive his monthly disability check from the Department of Veterans Affairs, for $892. While it may seem silly to risk everything by resorting to a criminal act and hostage standoff simply to get the $892 owed him by the government, the desperation is real. With a daughter to provide for and his own mouth to feed, Easley depends on that VA check. He’s at the end of his rope and resorts to something drastic. He doesn’t intend to hurt anyone; he just wants to get someone’s attention. Will anyone acknowledge his plight?
Largely inspired by a 2018 long-form article by Aaron Gell about the events—and aftermath—of that day, Breaking doesn’t excuse Easley for his bad decision to resort to criminal activity. His sin leads to consequences, and he bears responsibility. But there’s a profound tragedy in the reality that Easley felt so overlooked, so invisible, so lacking any advocates that this is all he could think to do. Do we, as fellow citizens and neighbors of Easley, bear any responsibility for his slipping through the cracks? Can we acknowledge that Easley’s downfall was caused by both his individual sin and the systemic sin pervasive in a broken society? As American Christians struggle through these conversations and questions, a film like Breaking can be helpful.
His sin leads to consequences, and he bears responsibility. But there’s a profound tragedy in the reality that Easley felt so overlooked, so invisible, so lacking any advocates, that this is all he could think to do.
Nope also explores sin and its consequences (spoilers follow). The film’s villain is a supernatural monster nicknamed Jean Jacket, who looks like a heavenly Angel of Death—or something out of Ezekiel’s vision. This fearsome being sucks up humans like a vacuum cleaner, consuming them completely and efficiently. In an echo of Raiders of the Lost Ark, those who look at the monster are doomed, while those who deferentially refuse eye contact—as protagonist siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald (Keke Palmer) do—might be spared. This small detail contributes to the reading of Jean Jacket as some sort of holy agent. The posture of the sinners it seeks to destroy matters. Are they arrogant or are they chastened by healthy fear?
The reading of Jean Jacket as an agent of wrath, bringing judgment to an unholy people, seems viable in part because of the film’s opening with the text of Nahum 3:6, where the arrogant and wicked Nineveh (“the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder,” v. 1) is warned by God via the prophet Nahum: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle” (NKJV). Peele also explored themes of divine judgment and wrath in his previous film, Us (2019), where another stark Old Testament warning figures prominently: “Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (Jer. 11:11).
As in Breaking, Nope sees sin both in the individual and communal senses. Jean Jacket’s wrath befalls those who are individually guilty of some obvious sin (a foolish camera operator who wants to get the “money shot” of the monster, a greedy TMZ reporter), but also those whose sins are less obvious—who may be guilty by association or complicity. This is disturbingly clear in a scene where 40 people in an amusement park audience, including families with young children, are summarily dispatched by carnivorous Jean Jacket. The scene reminded me of moments in the Old Testament when entire clans and households are dramatically destroyed for their sin (e.g., Num.16:28–35). It may feel unjust, but not if you believe in a holy God.
Jean Jacket wants human blood and, by all accounts, will have it from anyone it pleases. For all have sinned (Rom. 3:23). No one is righteous (Rom. 3:10). And the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
So why are some characters in Nope spared? Are OJ and Emerald (who survive) spared because they’ve merited it? Are they righteous? No. They’re guilty of the same sins (seeking to exploit Jean Jacket for fame and fortune) as others the creature consumes. The film doesn’t answer the question, and while OJ and Emerald have escaped wrath by the end of the film, it’s not clear they’ll escape it forever. If the fate of another key character (played by Steven Yeun) is any indication, just because you escape wrath once doesn’t mean you’ll evade it in the future.
Still, there’s interesting imagery in the film that evokes Exodus and the Passover. OJ and Emerald’s house—where they take shelter along with a friend, curiously named Angel (Brandon Perea)—is at one scary point drenched in blood poured down from the heavens. As they take refuge in this house, the roof and doorposts of which are covered in blood, they survive numerous “passing over” flights of Jean Jacket / the Angel of Death. Is Peele making an allusion to God’s mercy over the Israelites in Exodus? Though God is never appealed to for salvation in Nope, this imagery nevertheless evokes his gracious deliverance of Israel from his own holy wrath.
In Breaking, as the film nears its conclusion and Easley seems more and more aware that the wages of his own sin will be death, he appeals to God. In a prayer with his daughter on the phone, he recites Psalm 91:1–3 (NIV):
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.
Does Easley own his sin and appeal to God’s mercy in his final moments? We can’t know, but this prayer seems to suggest Easley knows where his ultimate hope and salvation will be found: not in his own righteousness but in God’s. Still, Breaking’s theological takeaways are not only on the individual level (“Get right with God before it’s too late”) but also the communal. The film challenges us to bear witness to Easley’s fate not as distant spectators but as those whose own sin (for which we are certainly individually accountable) isn’t unrelated to or disconnected from his.
Sin of Spectacle
Both Breaking and Nope explore the dangers of dehumanizing exploitation and spectacle. Indeed, our addiction to finding pleasure in watching the sins or suffering of others (whether “can’t look away” gawkers driving by crash scenes, TMZ tabloid gossip, or the Jerry Springer-style train wrecks of reality TV) can be a sin in and of itself.
Our addiction to finding pleasure in watching the sins or suffering of others can be a sin in and of itself.
In Nope’s case, this is a deeply reflexive theme throughout the movie, from the opening Gordy’s Home flashback scene when a flashing “Applause” sign on a horrific sitcom set seems to beckon to the audience (us): “Are you not entertained?” Not only are the characters throughout the film guilty of the sin of gawking at and exploiting—rather than respecting—creatures and humans alike, but the film’s audience must consider their own posture. Do we find pleasure in the horrors we watch on-screen? If so, are we sober about the reality that our own sin means such horrors should befall us too?
Breaking is less overt in exploring this theme, but it’s there. Easley’s clear goal of making the evening news (“I need to be on camera!”) is tragic because it’s his only recourse to being seen. He knows his plight is otherwise invisible to the privileged, who can live their lives entirely oblivious to his struggle—unless it invades their living rooms via breaking news. For those of us who only learn of Easley’s plight because we watched it on the news or read about it on our smartphone while sipping a cappuccino, the challenge is convicting. Can we reach out to our struggling neighbors before they’re a headline or statistic? Can we respond to their suffering tangibly rather than via mediated spectacle? How can we move beyond vague awareness of injustice into a realm of active attending to suffering, at the very least in our local contexts and neighborhoods? What might we do to love the precious people behind infotainment headlines?
Early in Nope, there’s a reference to Eadweard Muybridge’s “Plate Number 626” from his Animal Locomotion series—some of the first motion pictures ever recorded. Peele observes that while the spectacle of a moving horse image is remembered, the black jockey atop the horse was forgotten; no one knew his name (though Emerald and OJ claim he’s their ancestor). How often is that the case in our hypermediated infotainment world? Human dignity is subordinated to the spectacle. We remember the show but ignore the soul.
These two films call us to look closer, with eyes not of passive consumption but active compassion, seeking not just to be amused in the moment but to be engaged in what matters for eternity.