El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

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This year has seen a string of television shows being given the so-called ‘movie treatment’. Downton Abbey and Deadwood have both been brought back and soon David Chase’s ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ will be released in cinemas. El Camino marks Vince Gilligan revisiting Breaking Bad for a second time. For a while, the common consensus was that Vince Gilligan could do no wrong. Following Breaking Bad and the similarly lauded Better Call Saul, the faith many had in him was astronomically high. It felt like a sure bet to say he would one day make the transition from television into film but you’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d spend his Breaking Bad capital on something at least a little different. Instead he remains in his Breaking Bad domain and while Gilligan’s reputation won’t be tarnished by El Camino, its hard not to be disappointed in the film he gives us.

Starting where Breaking Bad ends, El Camino follows Jesse Pinkman from his final moments in the series finale, ‘Felinas’. After escaping from the neo-Nazi compound driving the titular ‘El Camino’, Jesse aims to leave New Mexico and start a new life in Alaska but first he must acquire enough money to afford the service offered by Ed Galbraith (The Disappearer), all while evading the police and facing off against the latest antagonists in the Breaking Bad canon, the underwhelming ‘Kandy Welding Company’.

The film is told using a number of flashbacks, all of which take place prior to the final scenes in Breaking Bad. These are littered throughout to make up for the thin plot and appear to be an attempt to hide the fact that very little happens in El Camino. It’s the scenes taking place during Jesse’s time enslaved by the neo-Nazi Gang that strengthens the film. Aaron Paul’s understated performance adds another layer of depth to Jesse Pinkman’s character that the writing does not. In one flashback, set in mid season two (when Walt and Jesse were still ‘cooking’ out of the RV), both sides of Jesse’s character come out. The loud arrogance visible in how he snatches the jug of water off of the waiter at a buffet is contrasted with the tender compassion he shows when assuring ‘Mr White’ that his family will get all the money they need regardless of how badly his condition declines. It’s this second side of him we see throughout the film.

Jesse Plemmons reprises his role as Todd. Side by side these two characters appear similar, both are subordinate to more powerful men (Jesse to Walt and Todd to his uncle Jack). Yet morally they differ. In one scene, Todd brings Jesse to his apartment to help him dispose of the cleaning lady’s dead body. When asked what she had done to him Todd replies “she didn’t do anything to me”. Jesse later has the chance to shoot Todd and escape but doesn’t take it. Whereas Todd feels no remorse, remaining unaffected despite killing an innocent woman, Jesse is overcome by it. Ultimately, his guilt stops him from taking Todd’s life because he doesn’t believe he deserves to escape, but rather deserves to suffer at the hands of the neo-Nazi Gang as some form of penance.

In the opening scene Mike Ehrmantraut tells Jesse the one thing he’ll never be able to do is “put things right”. Gilligan uses El Camino to explore Jesse’s conscience over-run with guilt, blaming himself as the cause for the suffering of those he cared about; Andrea, Brock and Jane.

However this isn’t new. We’ve seen all of these aspects of Jesse’s character explored before in his reaction to Jane’s overdose, or having to kill Gale or even in his rage after Brock is poisoned. El Camino adds nothing to the character that wasn’t done in Breaking Bad and this is part of the reason why, despite the brilliant execution of these scenes set in the past, the films dependence on flashback should be considered a limitation as it needlessly regurgitates information from the series.

Yet an argument could be made for this film, as it tries to give Jesse Pinkman the heroic ending the character deserves. The storyline set in the present is devoted to Jesse’s efforts to gather enough money to ‘disappear’ just like Walt and Saul (whose ‘disappearances’ are both referred to). This begins as a way to simply outrun his conscience, trying to forget the past and start afresh. However he is forced to come to terms with his past when told he doesn’t have enough to afford the service Ed Galbraith provides. In the final act Jesse has to face off against the men from the ‘Kandy Welding Company’. We are told that the Kandy company played a role in Jesse’s enslavement to the neo-Nazi gang, although they never actually appeared in Breaking Bad itself. This scene represents Jesse confronting and coming to terms with his past. In this confrontation Jesse is made to face his past heroically rather than simply avoiding it by running away.

A literal stand off takes place in this scene, an homage to the Westerns that greatly influenced Breaking Bad stylistically. Jesse strolling into the workshop evokes William Munny at the end of Unforgiven, a character who like Jesse is forced to confront the violent past he has been trying to leave behind him. Just as Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood’s final entry into the Western genre, El Camino is likely Aaron Paul’s final appearance as Jesse Pinkman, a role that Paul will rightfully always be associated with. Both films try to give both actors, and the characters they’ve played (in Eastwood’s case Munny represents the archetypal character he played in most of his westerns) a fitting send off, although Gilligan doesn’t quite achieve this to the same extent as Eastwood.

Strong visuals always added to the brilliant writing on Breaking Bad. The show was particularly cinematic, as is Better Call Saul, with a distinct aesthetic which Marshall Adam’s cinematography doesn’t quite recapture in El Camino. Instead it boasts a darker colour palette that suits the somber tone. By not recapturing the exact style of breaking bad, it feels as if Gilligan is trying to let the film stand alone as a separate entity to the series (just as Better Call Saul has managed to do). The problem here is that the audience’s enjoyment and understanding of this film is entirely dependent on their knowledge of Breaking Bad. One feature of the film’s style it does share with the series is the use of time-lapse over cityscapes. These used to be Gilligan’s calling card but largely due to their overuse in popular culture, something that could be attributed to their use in Breaking Bad, here they almost cheapens Adam’s cinematography. However with this exception Adam’s does do an excellent job of making the film look like something you’d watch on the silver screen although the weak narrative doesn’t quite seem to warrant the price of a cinema ticket, making its Netflix release feel appropriate. Gilligan can’t manage to pair the striking visuals with an equally engaging story.

The film is blatant ‘fan service’ but to it credit it manages to successfully incorporate characters from the series without them feeling tacked on. The film brings back side characters but in a way that feels natural. Badger and Skinny Pete return as does the late Robert Forster in his last film role, the legend sadly passing away the day El Camino was released. Deceased characters also make appearances in flashback form all of which give perfect performance, managing to recapture the essence of their characters despite everything thats changed since the series ended. In particular Jesse Plemmons and Aaron Paul have both changed physically in the years between Breaking Bad and El Camino but their impeccable performances mean this is no issue.

The title ‘El Camino’ seems to hold little importance. It simply refers to the car we see Jesse escaping in at the end of Breaking Bad. The car is even offloaded onto Skinny Pete early into the film playing no role in the narrative past this point. In a similar way the film holds no importance either. While many may welcome El Camino, glad to be given a definitive ending to Jesse Pinkman’s story, it is a completely unnecessary epilogue to the character. It is not ‘unnecessary’ in the way people like to argue ‘no film is actually necessary’ but in the sense that nothing is done for the character of Jesse Pinkman that wasn’t done throughout Breaking Bad’s entire run. Whereas Better Call Saul adds to the character of Jimmy McGill, El Camino adds nothing to the character of Jesse Pinkman. The film even ends with a shot of Jesse driving off almost identical to the last shot of him in Breaking Bad. This shot in El Camino even poses the same question of viewers as it did in Breaking Bad, ‘what will happen to Jesse next?’ making you question what the point of the last 2 hours was.

There appears to be this desire from audiences to be spoon fed everything. Some viewers want the stories they are being told to be wholly satisfying and wrapped up nicely. That is what El Camino does. Consider for a moment David Chase, creator of The Sopranos a show many believe to be the finest television series ever aired. In more than ten years since its infamous final scene Chase has never given in to demands by fans to reveal what happened to Tony when the camera suddenly cut to black. What Gilligan has done with El Camino is quite the opposite. He has caved in to fans, wrapping up loose ends and answering unanswered questions that really didn’t need answering. But catering to fans is no crime, and doing so doesn’t mean Gilligan loses any artistic credibility as what he provides is an attempt at making a heartfelt ode to possibly the most tragic character he’s ever created. His intentions were honourable even if he doesn’t manage to achieve this.

Like anyone who watched the series you probably came up with your own ending for Jesse after seeing him bust out of those gates in the series finale. The truth of the matter is that the endings you conjured up yourself were probably far more interesting than ‘El Camino’.

2 out of 5