REVIEW: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie — Directed by Vince Gilligan.

In the eleventh episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman (played by Aaron Paul) found himself at a crossroads. He had been given an opportunity for a clean break, a new identity, and a fresh start. His dangerous business partner and former high school teacher (with whom he had built a drug empire), Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), had told him that maybe that is exactly what Jesse needed: “You know, I really think that would be good for you. A clean slate. Just think about it. Get a job, something legitimate, something you like. Meet a girl. Start a family even, hell, you’re still so damn young. What’s here for you anyway? I’ll tell you if I could, I’d trade places.”

A new start would be great for Jesse, but he, ultimately, decided against it when he realized that his partner — not Jesse himself — was to blame for one of the great missteps in his life, which ruined his most priced relationship. Furious and with nothing but himself to lose, Jesse’s rampage eventually — in the next episodes — led him to confess to the D.E.A. and to be captured and tortured by the Neo-Nazi group that Mr. White was currently partnered with. As Breaking Bad came to an end, he was freed by his dying former mentor.

In the last image that we saw of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, Jesse had an emotional grin on his face as he was driving away from the Neo-Nazi compound and away from the partner that had both saved and ruined his life. Walter White was dead. Jesse Pinkman was seemingly free. It is at this point in time when we reunite with Jesse Pinkman in El Camino, the follow-up to Vince Gilligan’s masterful series. In Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Jesse Pinkman is on the run from the authorities as he tries to get his life back together. With the authorities hot on his heels, he hopes to scrounge up the money that would allow him to start over, but that is easier said than done. He will have to retrace his steps and search far and wide for the means that may allow him to find peace, or something similar.

I would advise my fellow Breaking Bad disciples to think of El Camino not as the next big thing, or as the sequel to one of the greatest series ever made, but more as an epilogue we have been speculating about for years. Here Vince Gilligan is checking off some very satisfying boxes and tying up loose ends. Ultimately, El Camino, which is really a postscript, may not be an essential follow-up, but it does answer a question fans have been debating for so very long: what is next for Jesse? The outstanding final episodes of Breaking Bad — arguably some of the best episodes of television ever made — mostly focused on Walter White, his farewells, and his conclusion. El Camino is a present for those fans who felt that we needed more closure to Jesse Pinkman’s story.

Written and directed by Breaking Bad-creator Vince Gilligan, El Camino manages to be a moving and appropriate postscript complete with audience-pleasing flashbacks. These flashbacks, most of which revolve around the time when Jesse was caged by Neo-Nazis, inform the journey that Jesse Pinkman is on and do not feel tacked-on. Gilligan’s film also doesn’t feel like a rushed afterthought. With evocative cinematography that makes you feel for the film’s despondent main character, slick editing that subtly binds flashbacks together with the main narrative, and thrilling neo-western scenes, El Camino looks and feels like a part of the series, and if it were not for the fact that one of the prominent actors in the film has gained a noticeable amount of weight, then you might be fooled into thinking this film wasn’t actually shot in the last twelve months.

If you have no idea who Skinny Pete (played by Charles Baker), Badger (played by Matt Jones), or Todd Alquist (played by Jesse Plemons) are, then you should probably take another look at the series before you watch El Camino. Indeed, this film is by no means meant for the uninitiated. Again, this is an epilogue to the series. It definitely is not a standalone film. All three of the aforementioned characters make an appearance in the film, and none of them disappoint. Badger and Skinny Pete were lovable goofballs in Breaking Bad, and, in El Camino, Charles Baker, genuinely, almost made me cry, which was a great surprise. I’ve always viewed Todd Alquist as the anti-Pinkman. Todd was the immoral and unprincipled student that Walter White once thought he needed. Though Plemons looks incredibly (and distractingly) different nowadays, it was good to see him play Todd again. Plemons is so eerie, vile, and unassuming in the role, and his performance is one of the highlights of the film.

The story goes that the Jesse Pinkman character was always meant to be killed off early in the series, but that Aaron Paul was such a great presence, such a good actor, and had such outstanding chemistry with Bryan Cranston that they had to change the series as a result. As anyone who has seen Breaking Bad can attest to, Aaron Paul is a very good actor, but, due to the nature of the series, he has always been in the shadow of Bryan Cranston. With this film, Gilligan has given us a new understanding of the torture that Jesse Pinkman suffered through. Therefore El Camino has provided Paul with an opportunity to showcase his talents as a leading man, and I think his performance is an outstanding highlight reel that, finally, should, all things being equal, propel him into A-list stardom. He gets to play a PTSD-stricken outlaw that is haunted by the ghosts of his past, saying his goodbyes, and trying to get a fresh start. Jesse Pinkman has experienced many varieties of trauma, and, in El Camino, Aaron Paul rose to the occasion and made even the contemplative, wordless scenes heartbreaking.

Due to how anticipated this epilogue is, I do not think it is appropriate to discuss any other performances or appearances thoroughly, but I will mention that a seasoned actor, who, in a sad coincidence, passed away on the day that this film was released, gives a terrific supporting performance as a businessman who Jesse Pinkman is desperate to make a deal with. This character is no stranger to Breaking Bad-fans, and the actor reminded us just how effortlessly great he had always been. It made me so happy to see him in this film, and I was shocked when I learned he had passed away.

I do have a couple of issues with the film, which, I suppose, could feel like two standalone episodes stitched together by using curious flashbacks. I think there are moments when the film isn’t paced particularly well. A film that is, at times, somewhat relaxed, El Camino drags slightly at the halfway point. Frankly, I think the biggest problem with the epilogue is the passing of time, which is obviously out of our hands. It is incredibly jarring how one character, in particular, looks completely different in flashbacks scenes than he did in the original show, and there are a couple of scenes wherein wigs are distracting as well.

Downbeat but tense, Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is a satisfying postscript to one of the greatest series ever made. In no way, shape, or form, do I think that Gilligan’s film tarnishes the impact of the series. I’m sure some will say that Gilligan’s film is a safe continuation and that it doesn’t do enough to set itself apart from the original series. But to say that would be to misread the purpose of El Camino. Admittedly, El Camino may not have ever been necessary, but, as it stands, Gilligan has gifted us with an outstanding meditative epilogue about a broken man trying to achieve the fresh start that he once threw away.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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