It wasn’t until a final howl of hope shot off the tortured face of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) that you really understood how bad he had it in Breaking Bad. Through the gruff and scruff of the series’ back half, his agony was constantly, cruelly, and unfairly prolonged – to the point that the men who were hired to kill him converted the job into an acquisition of slave labor. This was one of the many ways Vince Gilligan’s pinnacle creation examined consequences, and its follow-up film, El Camino, is a comparatively simple story of a man trying to outrun them – well, at least the ones he hasn’t yet encountered.
Picking up right where the show left off six years ago, with Jesse speeding and squealing down the road after his liberation by chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gilligan doesn’t hold the hands of any viewer who may not be privy to the events of his AMC smash hit. This film, to its advantage, is a calculated continuation, designed to pluck onto the “Felina” of its fifth season. However, unlike the last piece of your typical puzzle, the picture of this series wouldn’t be entirely harmed or imperfect without it.
Whereas the final moments of Breaking Bad were dedicated to parading the loneliness with which Walt’s death was embraced by, El Camino begins with a refreshing rebuttal, as Jesse, beaten and battered, falls into the arms of his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones). Encouraged to cool off and lay low – it didn’t take long for the authorities to descend upon and decipher the massacre Heisenberg had laid out for them – Jesse takes refuge at Skinny’s, preparing his trauma-torn body and spirit for his next move.
But it seems that the young man already knows where he wants to go. An introductory and touching conversation (the participants of which I will not spoil here) sets Jesse’s sails towards Alaska, and the ensuing pair of hours is dedicated to getting him there, just about. Sprinkled is too light of a word to describe the distracting flashbacks strewn throughout El Camino. And given the gap of time between the show and the series, they also require a reoccurring suspension of disbelief – especially the ones featuring sociopathic Nazi Todd (an eerily candid Jesse Plemons) – despite their being quintessential to the plot.
For any other writer or for any other story, their frequency and necessity would be the subject of a screenplay complaint. But the film’s overall lack of fresh content is somewhat forgivable, given that the reason isn’t based around an untapped well; Gilligan’s published over 60 hours of Jesse’s story already and these additional two were, until a few months ago, an unexpected gift. With that said, a valid complaint lies in El Camino’s tendency to fluctuate recognizable faces in and out of the plot for the clearly sole purpose of fan service. Though that’s something I don’t imagine the show’s biggest enthusiasts will complain about.
Now Breaking Bad was cinematic in and of itself, so its transition to the big screen (or, to be specific, any other Netflix-capable screen) certainly feels organic. Director of photography Marshall Adams, who’d interestingly only worked on one episode of the original series, spectacularly captures the grazing emptiness of New Mexico, presenting the desert playground as a familiar territory when it could have very easily felt foreign.
It almost goes without saying that the film, taking place immediately after the death of its former lead, is practically a one-man show. It demands more and subsequently exhibits more from Aaron Paul than any other role the 40-year-old actor has been handed since 2013. While El Camino offers little in the thrills department (with the exception of one shootout that harkens back to the climaxes of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name), Paul, as a man on the cusp of leaving his demolished homeland, brews both dread and desire. This is as much of a glorifying sendoff for Paul’s far-too-often shadowed performance as it is for the character himself.
The subtitle belonging to El Camino is “A Breaking Bad Movie,” which, if box office-feasting conglomerates have taught us anything, leaves room for more potential stories like this. Six years was the perfect amount of time to squash what was left of the story, allowing the film to feel less like a cash grab, and more like a calculated effort. As Pinkman’s arc (officially) ends, so does Breaking Bad.
A simple and simply satisfying seal, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie will, in no way, tarnish the alchemic legacy of its TV precursor, though it doesn’t do much to enhance it.