Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, on now on Netflix. Warning: a few spoilers ahead…
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Director: Vince Gilligan
Stars: Aaron Paul, Jonathan Banks. Jesse Plemons
The further adventures of Jesse Pinkman. Warning: inevitable spoilers.
What is striking about Vince Gilligan’s long-awaited follow-up to the beatified Breaking Bad series is how seamlessly one is drawn back into the mise en scene of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)’s shadowy, woozy, off-kilter world. Beginning, as it had to, with our lead character escaping the neo-Nazi compound after his former partner had annihilated everyone in it, we are immediately back inside Jesse’s head. And after being brutalized and enslaved by his captors for so long, he is clearly not the Jesse of old.
Seeking out old and loyal compadres Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), a thoroughly beaten and dishevelled Jesse recuperates at their house before heading off to find Todd (Jesse Plemons, one of the aforementioned Nazis)’s stash of money, along with the “disappearer” who relocated and provided new identities for both Saul and Walt. And that is essentially the motor and indeed plot for the two hours that illustrate not just Jesse’s journey, but his redemptive arc.
It’s a quiet, languid, understated affair, which correctly doesn’t try too hard. Its stately, aftermath pace is closer to Better Call Saul, (although there is an actual resolution involved!) and as it is as aesthetically washed out and hermetic as the main series, one can’t really call this a proper movie, especially when it’s necessary to be a fan of Breaking Bad to understand what’s going on. But these are moot points, as it is a remarkably assured work, brimming with tension and desolation – the diagrammatic retelling of Jesse’s dehumanization at the hands of his jailers expertly meshed with the present-day narrative. As one would expect, the film is about the past and its ghosts and demons, despite the limited use of Jesse’s former cast members. By slowing the action down to an almost banal level, the city of Albuquerque and its environs become more sinister, claustrophobic and unforgiving than the hyperreal version from before. Plus it gives Gilligan a chance to impose some very grim flashbacks on the viewer, most of which lack the black humour so prevalent in BB (although the extended scene in which Todd gets Jesse to “tidy up” for him after he murders his housekeeper teeters in that direction).
What is equally excellent is that everything plays in an organic and logical manner – Jesse acts as one would assume he would, despite the trauma-induced maturity, and his surviving malefactors are every bit as amoral and feral as ever. All the barriers, mazes and bad memories Jesse has to navigate are grist for him. And this leads us to Aaron Paul’s performance, which is superb. For once he is the lead character, and nobody’s foil. He plays several Jesses – the current surly, internalized one, along with the feckless flake from a decade earlier, as well as the romantic loser. His pared down effort, especially when he is battling his nightmares (or experiencing them in the flashbacks) is very different from the familiar wild-eyed buffoon, and illustrates what a hefty rite of passage he went through.
Of course Paul is ably abetted by the excellent cast – Scott Macarthur’s Neil (another bogeyman from Jesse’s past) is excellent as the smirking villain of the piece, while Robert Forster’s Ed Galbraith is a wonderfully measured turn, and a fitting swansong for such an underrated actor. And yes, the Walter White cameo (something I didn’t expect, as I opted to steer clear of any notices) briefly reminds us just how great a double act the two characters were – in this case, like in all the flashbacks, there’s a life lesson involved for Pinkman, but one can forget this due to witnessing Bryan Cranston back in the saddle again, regardless of it likely being for the last time.
But this is Aaron Paul’s movie, and this time, as it’s the epilogue, or coda, if you will, his character reaches transcendence – no longer the powerless loser hiding in grimy corners, Jesse escapes, not just his old life but himself. In other words, he wins. There are barely any happy endings in Breaking Bad and all its spin-offs, but you feel that Jesse has earned it. It would be remiss not to mention the superlative cinematography, which applies extra layers to all the blank, dimly-lit interiors as well as the desertscapes that enclose Albuquerque, not to mention Vince Gilligan’s spare yet fluid direction. Although it’s effectively a mere addendum, El Camino is far more than that, and certainly leaves us hungry for more. However we’ll have to make do with this unexpected gem.