“Like the Wild West?”
“Yeah. Like the Wild West.”
With Breaking Bad ‘s series finale, the story of chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White wrapped up neatly. However, the story of his partner Jesse Pinkman ended a bit more ambiguously. After all was said and done, Jesse had taken off in an El Camino, liberated by Walter from his Nazi captors. We didn’t know what happened to him after that… until now.
El Camino is a passion project from series creator Vince Gilligan and Pinkman himself, Aaron Paul. Released ten years after Breaking Bad premiered on television, we have a bookend of a film that provides closure to the story of Jesse Pinkman. Written and directed by Gilligan, the film begins moments after its series finale, “Felina”, as it centers around Jesse trying to escape the law and his past. The film is as simple as that in terms of plot. In terms of everything else though, El Camino is much more layered.
In terms of storytelling, Gilligan and co. are at their peak. Reuniting with most of his Breaking Bad crew, Gilligan takes his craft to another cinematic level. Not to say that Breaking Bad was not cinematic, but El Camino brings it up a notch. Filmed with an Arri Alexa 65, the film has a wider aspect ratio to reflect its presence on the big screen rather than a television. While this was made and released by Netflix, I was lucky enough to catch this film in theaters. It definitely makes a difference. Between the wide-open shots of Albuquerque, classic time-lapse sequences, and overall grounded and gritty aesthetic, El Camino is a beautiful film. Cinematographer Marshall Adams transitions the world of Breaking Bad from television to film excellently.
Dave Porter, who made tense and harrowing music for the television show, returns to score the Pinkman-centric film. Providing an altogether different feel for this score, Porter brings a more toned down but still tense vibe. The music cues match up perfectly with the atmosphere of the film. Also, the sound editing and mixing on this film demands that you watch it on the best sound system possible. El Camino is loud when it needs to be, but also quiet and intimate when it needs to be.
Furthermore, Gilligan’s script is tight and moves at a good enough pace. Never feeling like it slows down or moves story beats too fast, the pacing works. El Camino does a good enough job making its fan service justifiable as well. Never being too on the nose or feeling unnecessary, the moments that call back to the show usually only service the story. Speaking of story, while simplistic, is bolstered by Paul’s superb central performance.
As Jesse, Paul gives one of the best performances of his career with subtle expressions and the occasional bombastic, gangster performance. His line deliveries in the film’s quieter moments can leave you heartbroken and in other more tense scenes, leave you at the edge of your seat. Seeing as this character is what defined Aaron Paul’s career, it makes sense that his final turn as the character is his best yet.
What makes things interesting is that El Camino is more of a neo-western than anything else. With its desert backdrop and the premise of a man on the run, it works perfectly. By the time the film reaches its third act, the themes and story beats of a classic western are prevalent throughout. This is partly why El Camino works so well. In taking on the western genre, it differentiates itself enough from its TV roots, which was mostly a different genre. In trying to avoid the law, Jesse is also trying to outrun his name and legacy. It is only when he is freed from his past identity as a killer and drug dealer that Jesse can be liberated.
The narrative’s use of flashbacks helps mirror the internal conflict Jesse is going through in El Camino as well. Overall, the film has a strong narrative and a great lead performance. However, while this is a Breaking Bad movie, the film does not rely very much on the cast from the show. Instead, El Camino introduces enough new characters to keep things fresh while still honoring what came before. Some old characters return, but this is mainly Jesse’s story and the obstacles he faces on the road to freedom. There is not much action, but the phrase “less is more” makes sense with El Camino. While there isn’t nonstop action, it makes the few scenes that involve such things all the more satisfying.
Breaking Bad did not need a movie to wrap up its story. That said, it certainly doesn’t hurt knowing that one exists. El Camino does enough to stand on its own in terms of story, but it still strengthens the legacy of one of the greatest TV shows of all time. That’s no small feat from Gilligan and company, who re-establish themselves as masters of the Neo-Western. For these reasons and more, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is one of the best films of the year. The story of Jesse Pinkman and Breaking Bad as a whole is finally complete. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Grade – 10/10
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is currently streaming on Netflix.