El Camino review

Almost a decade ago, the ABC drama Lost came to a controversial conclusion, managing to bother more people than it pleased with a series finale that’s still being misinterpreted. A few months later, the final season was released on DVD with a 12-minute epilogue film titled “The New Man in Charge.” In the epilogue, we learned more about the futures and fates of a few members of the show’s vast ensemble. It didn’t resolve the finale’s frustrations, but was a pleasant capper to the genre-bending drama.

For better, and often worse, it was hard (at least for this writer) to not be dogged by thoughts of “The New Man in Charge” while watching Netflix’s latest release, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. As the subtitle suggests, this two-hour crime drama is tied to the Breaking Bad universe, first established with the excellent AMC drama that aired from 2008 to 2013. Though the show’s characters live on in the prequel spinoff show Better Call Saul, El Camino is squarely focused on another character, the meth dealer with a hidden soul named Jesse Pinkman. But even with an unsurprisingly emotionally complex lead performance from Aaron Paul, El Camino can’t help but feel unnecessary and overlong.

For the uninitiated…well, it’s best to start with Breaking Bad, because watching this film cold will only throw you off. Jesse, last seen on the show escaping from his squalid prison cell overseen by neo-Nazis forcing him to cook meth, is in desperate need of avoiding the cops and getting the hell out of Dodge (or, rather, Albuquerque). The shortest, most spoiler-free description of what happens in El Camino is this: the film documents how he tries to avoid the cops and eventually gain genuine freedom. In doing so, it’s entirely possible that Jesse runs into other characters (in the present or through his memories) from the beloved drama.

Show creator Vince Gilligan, who wrote and directed El Camino, made Breaking Bad stand out thanks to its often striking, sweeping vistas, its distinctive (for television, at least) cinematography. Yes, the show boasted two incredible performances from Paul and lead actor Bryan Cranston (as high-school chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord Walter White), but it was how Breaking Bad looked that often defined it against other TV dramas about antiheroes. So it’s no surprise that El Camino, even with a presumably low budget, is amazingly well-crafted from a technical standpoint. Even without the show’s longtime cinematographer, Michael Slovis, behind the lens, El Camino is just as capable at framing New Mexico in a newer light thanks to Gilligan and DP Marshall Adams; their adept visual eye makes the film equally impressive, if not more so, than the show was to watch. (It’s worth noting that El Camino is presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, a wider ratio than the show had.)

Paul, who rose to fame as Jesse a decade ago, shows no sign of strain in returning to a role that requires him to play someone roughly half his age. (He’s 40 now, and Jesse would be in his early twenties, at most. But the life Jesse lived during the show would age even the best of us, so it’s not a hard transformation to buy.) There are long stretches of El Camino where Jesse doesn’t speak, and Paul proves himself to be the rare kind of actor who can command your attention even without the assistance of dialogue. The final episodes of Breaking Bad were able to hint at the pain and torment Jesse was going through at the hands of his cruel wardens, but El Camino is able to dig deeper into the understandable PTSD Jesse experiences once he’s free of their bonds.

Where El Camino struggles is in the nagging sense that it has no business being two hours long, because there’s not nearly enough reason to expand a fairly brief, tense adventure into feature length. The show often received comparisons to Westerns (which may make some cinephiles blanche), and El Camino steers right into those comparisons; one of its setpieces invokes the Western trope to end all Western tropes, all but demanding to be considered alongside neo-Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a fine aim for any film to strive for, but one El Camino arguably doesn’t earn. Where Leone could fill the space of his wide screen with sweaty men, close-ups of their straining eyes, and elongate tension by seeming to slow down every tete-a-tete, El Camino has the air of just killing time.

There’s a good deal more worth discussing in regard to El Camino, but to do so would be to spoil things, like which characters from the show do or do not return. (The early ad campaign already revealed the predictable arrival of two recurring characters, Jesse’s old friends Badger and Skinny Pete. It’s safe to say more characters pop up, too.) That, in effect, is why this film seems to exist. Yes, if you loved Breaking Bad (and please note: I did), you might have wondered, “What will happen to Jesse Pinkman next?” It’s not even that Vince Gilligan answering that question was a bad idea. It’s that a two-hour version of that answer, as beautiful as it looks and as well-acted as it is, was wholly superfluous.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He's one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He's also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.