Film Review – El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
Warning: the following contains spoilers for the TV show, Breaking Bad
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) may have been the leading character of the television show Breaking Bad, but it was Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) – a small time drug dealer and White’s eventual partner in crime – who was the heart and soul. He was our moral conscious, who witnessed firsthand Walter’s gradual descent into evil. Of all the victims of Walter’s drug empire, Jesse suffered the most – enduring physical and mental torture, the loss of loved ones, and being put into situations where he had to make terrible choices. During the series finale, when most of the central figures fell to the wayside, it was Jesse who managed to escape. But his story never felt complete, many fans wondered what happened to him after that final episode.
Showrunner Vince Gilligan has granted them the gift of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) a feature-length story that picks up immediately after the end of the show. We find Jesse, mentally fatigued and physically scarred, on the run from the authorities for his involvement with Walter’s crimes, as well as the criminals pursuing him for their own nefarious reasons. For those that wanted to see a more developed closure to Jesse’s arc, they get exactly what they hoped for here. This is his story through and through, focusing on his mental state after the journey that brought him from the first episode all the way to this moment.
Gilligan (who writes and directs) makes no effort to introduce new viewers to this world. He openly references characters and events from the show without bothering to explain them. He includes a number of flashbacks to previous seasons, filling in extra details of Jesse’s life without going into specifics. It would be beneficial to go back and watch the series, even those who have seen it may find a revisit useful as I found myself struggling to remember familiar faces. There are numerous callbacks to a character named Todd (Jesse Plemons) whose inclusion will make no sense if you haven’t already seen the show. In fact, the need to know Jesse’s background going into the film maybe its biggest hinderance.
One of the highlights of Breaking Bad was watching how Gilligan and his staff manipulated the plot to put characters in highly suspenseful situations. That quality is continued in El Camino. If Gilligan ever wanted to switch from television to focus on crime films, he would do so with ease. He has a way of keeping things quiet and reserved, only to inject an immediate danger that puts everyone on their toes. The narrative is made up of episodes that are executed with pure suspense. Action and violence are at a minimum, but that doesn’t negate the fact that many of the scenes are incredibly tense. From Jesse trying to pick a door lock before being discovered, or being stuck inside of an apartment with police officers blocking the only way out, Gilligan introduces these highly combustible problems and waits until the very last second to solve them.
There is a moment when Jesse asks his friend, Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) why he is being so kind and helping him escape capture. Skinny Pete responds, “Because you’re my hero.” That is the key line to Jesse’s character. Walter White alienated everyone in his life, pushing people away through his narcissism and greed. Jesse maintained a level of humanity throughout the show and into the movie. His ability to show empathy toward others may have been his biggest weakness, but it was also his biggest strength. It prevented him from following Walter’s footsteps and created relationships with others who now help Jesse in return. If Jesse and Walter were to switch places, I highly doubt anyone would offer Walter a helping hand.
That goes to show how well Gilligan’s writing manages to examine the consequences of the choices characters make. Every action that Jesse has made weighs down on him. Every ounce of the drugs he helped cook, every crime he committed, and every dead body he had to bury has left a mark on his soul. His attempt to run is not only to avoid imprisonment or physical harm, but to shed the ghosts of his past. He has done bad things, but we never forget that he did so either out of desperation or lack of control. That’s what makes us root for Jesse, hoping this kid who got in over his head somehow finds a way out and leaves Walter, the authorities, the gangsters, and the drugs behind him.
El Camino plays like a two-hour long curtain call for Breaking Bad. I hope Vince Gilligan decides to move on from here, and that this film is proof that he can handle feature length genre pictures with a focused and assured hand. And for Aaron Paul, hopefully his performance (arguably the finest of his career) will show others that he is more than capable of carrying a film on his own and not have to be relegated to the role of sidekick. This is a well-crafted example of good storytelling, with every participant working at the highest level. I never thought we needed to return to this world or meet up with these characters again, but I’m sure glad that we did.