‘El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie’ Ties Up Loose Ends (FILM REVIEW)

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At first glance, it was perfect. When Breaking Bad came to a close six years ago, the notion of Jesse Pinkman, who long suffered under the tyranny of Walter White, and who suffered further under the tyranny of Uncle Jack, Todd, and their Nazi brethren, driving off into the black of night felt good. His was a future unwritten and the oppression of his past felt destined to melt away behind him.

There was something romantic and classically endearing about the image of Jesse, screaming in relief, driving as far away from his past as he could as fast as his car could take him. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was always good about not holding our hands through his labyrinthine tale of moral corruption, letting the audience make their own decisions about the choices that were made and allowing us the freedom to find the narrative on our own terms.

But six years is a long time. Each one that passed left the question of Jesse Pinkman dangling more and more provocatively. What was to become of him? Could he possibly have escaped the onslaught of law enforcement that descended upon the compound? Did he keep his freedom? Fair questions, all. Through the five-season run of Breaking Bad, as the moral gray areas the show initially asked us to dwell in became increasingly black and white, Jesse Pinkman served as the grounding heart.

This is, no doubt, owed to the captivating performance of Aaron Paul, he evolved Jesse from lovable dipshit to capable outlaw to tragic victim so subtly it went almost unnoticeable. Throughout the series, Paul channeled a raw, visceral humanity into Jesse that more and more began to serve as the moral center of the show. You pitied him. You wanted him to succeed. You wanted him, above all, to be happy. To be free.

And as much as the image of him driving off into the night while his former mentor and tormentor laid bleeding out behind him seemed kind of perfect, it began to feel like something of a raw deal. It became, glaringly, as the years rolled on, the single dangling thread that threatened to mar a series that, otherwise, was as close to perfect as a TV show has ever been.

If for no other reason than that, El Camino is a welcome addition to the Breaking Bad franchise, finally tying up the loose end that so many wondered at as the years have gone by. Much touted and long awaited, it knows it has big shoes to fill. For the most part, it manages to do so quite well.

We tend to remember the biggest moments of Breaking Bad. The explosion at Tuco’s office. Jane’s death. Gale Boetticher’s execution. Gus Fring’s revenge on the Cartel. Those moments stand out so much that it’s easy to forget that Breaking Bad largely existed in the quiet moments between the major confrontations. Gilligan is a master of rising tension, letting things come to a boil slowly over the course of many episodes before finally spilling over into something magnificent.

This is a technique he has utilized to great effect in the spinoff series, Better Call Saul, which is a quiet, more subdued take on his criminal universe that remains a stunning exploration of how a man might succumb to his worst instincts. And it’s a technique he largely toys with in El Camino. At its core, this is every bit the character study that Better Call Saul is, though the stakes are more immediate and the pressure is greater.

El Camino begins shortly after Jesse’s escape following Walter’s final confrontation with Uncle Jack and the Nazis. As theorized, he is backed into a corner and has nowhere to go. With all the pressure of local, state, and federal law enforcement pushing down on him, Jesse must find his way out of Albuquerque and into a new life, if that’s even possible.

If Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul are studies in how a man becomes evil in spite of their best intentions, El Camino is a study in how a man remains good despite their worst intentions. Make no mistake, Jesse has done bad things. He’s killed. He’s made and sold drugs. People have gotten killed because of him. And yet there remains an innocence to him that keeps us rooting for him no matter what he does.

Part of this, of course, is the recognition of his trauma and of his manipulation by Walter White. Jesse is guilty of many things, horrible things, but we, the audience, recognize his extenuating circumstances and love him because of that. It’s largely this dynamic between us and the character that propels El Camino forward.

It’s best to think of El Camino less as a movie and more as an extension of the TV show that spawned it. Gilligan does engage in some delightful moments of cinema but, then again, he always did. There’s not much distinguishing El Camino as a movie, per se, so much as an extended episode that serves as an epilogue. As far as that goes, it doesn’t necessarily stand out against the greatest moments of Breaking Bad, but it certainly isn’t among the worst.

The film’s biggest problem is that it is, well, a film. Gilligan, who wrote and directed El Camino, is used to packing his narratives full of twists and turns that play out over many episodes and seasons. Here, he has two hours. As a result, some of the story feels awfully rushed and plagued by exposition and flashbacks. While it doesn’t not work, it’s hard to watch and not wonder how it might have played out over the course of a five or six episode limited series as opposed to a film.

As nice as it might have been to watch this story take place over a longer form, it’s still never bad. Paul is as wonderful as ever as Pinkman and manages to portray his desperation and post-traumatic stress with a believability and humanity that reminds you of why you fell in love with the character in the first place. And yes, along the way, he encounters some old friends in both the present and in flashbacks.

Particularly present is Jesse Plemons as Todd. As often as fans focused on Gus Fring or Tuco as Breaking Bad’s best antagonists, Todd might be the scariest. Tuco and Fring were known quantities and they behaved more or less how you would expect. Even at his most crazed, there was a predictability to Tuco that made him easy to identify and understand. Todd was an enigma. He was insane on another level and Plemons delivered a beautifully understated performance that captured the nuance of his terrifying nature. It was great to see him again here.

All in all, El Camino is a good companion to Breaking Bad that ties off the show’s one remaining loose end in ways that are mostly satisfying. Pacing issues and some plot points aside, it’s hard to deny how well the film managed to recapture the heart of the series and offer some form of resolution. With its counter-balanced approached to Breaking Bad’s good vs evil narrative, it should offer some satisfying moments for long time fans. Or, at the very least, give us one final opportunity to break bad. That alone might be enough to justify its existence.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is now streaming on Netflix.

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