A feature-length motion picture streaming on Netflix, “El Camino” picks up right after “Breaking Bad” ended, with both Walter White and the Neo-Nazi’s that have been keeping Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) dead and Pinkman driving away in an El Camino automobile. He may be out of the cage those white supremacist drug dealers were holding him in, but Pinkman’s not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. Every cop in town is looking for him and Pinkman is going to need all of his wits to evade the authorities. His plan for staking out a new life will have him confronting parts of his past, sometimes literally and sometimes on an internal level as events of the present trigger assorted flashback sequences to various times in his past.
Jumping between the past and the present affords “El Camino” the chance to explore Jesse Pinkman as a character but it also offers up the chance for him to interact with certain characters from the Breaking Bad show that have passed on. I’m sure to some this will come off as mere fan-service, a more prestige version of Darth Maul randomly showing up at the end of “Solo.” While I suppose it is fan-service by definition, the way “El Camino” dishes out these appearances doesn’t come off as gratuitous or just looking to stroke the ego’s of fanboys. These scenes don’t consist of fan-favorite characters acting out all kinds of terrible Reddit fan-theories, don’t worry.
Instead, they’re mostly (an extended torture scene being a notable exception) more intimate sequences of Pinkman engaging in conversations with familiar faces, with a central theme across most of these exchanges being that they’re usually casual talks. There aren’t big revelations dished out here nor is there prolonged screaming between characters, even a talk with a murderer occurs while the killer calmly makes soup. These flashbacks primarily consist of the kind of conversations you could forget about right afterwards but get wistful about later on in life (“It’s the boring stuff I remember” a wise Wilderness Explorer scout once said). Within these seemingly throwaway moments of existence, one can see early reflections of Pinkman trying to decide where to go in life.
Throughout “Breaking Bad,” Pinkman was a character whose fate was constantly being altered by outside forces as Walter White manipulated both Pinkman and the people closest to him. The flashback sequences in “El Camino” are about Pinkman reckoning, whether he realizes it or not, with the concept of having more control of his life while the present-day sequences seem him actually trying his hardest to steer his destiny in the direction he wants it to go. Giving the glimpses into the past that thematic contrast with the present-day portions of the story is how you make sequences that could have been empty fan-service the kind of character-driven substance that “Breaking Bad” was iconic for.
Vince Gilligan’s writing remains exceptional as ever in “El Camino,” while his visual sensibilities as a director similarly maintain a high-level of quality in the confines of a feature film setting. Now working with a 2.39 aspect ratio (in contrast to the 1.78 :1 aspect ratio of the “Breaking Bad” TV show), “El Camino” looks glorious, the Arri Alexa 65 camera captures each frame in a crisp manner while cinematographer Marshall Adams is absolutely on fire with his imaginative ways of capturing individual sequences and moments. An overhead shot of Jesse looking through every room of an apartment for a special item is an outstanding example of the visual creativity Adams brings to the table while the way shots are composed to accentuate a sense of tension (particularly in a climactic shoot-out sequence) is similarly exemplary.
“El Camino” contains writing and directing that haven’t missed a beat in terms of quality from the days of “Breaking Bad” and Aaron Paul similarly slips right back into the role of Jesse Pinkman without fumbling a step. One of the many advantages of “El Camino” structuring its plot to have glimpses into various parts of the past intersect with the present is that it allows Paul the chance to show how good he is at effortlessly slipping into the various dispositions Pinkman has taken on over the years. Through these assorted flashback scenes, you can really appreciate how varied his work was over the course of “Breaking Bad” and, even more importantly, how impressively he captures that variety in the space of a single feature-length movie like “El Camino.”
Nothing else has made me curl up my toes and instill a pit in my stomach in response to dread like “Breaking Bad” did. That show constantly had me on the edge of my seat watching these characters spiral into wholly new people over the course of multiple seasons. Unlike too many other grisly TV shows (looking at you “Ozark”), everything on “Breaking Bad” had a purpose, every action had a consequence, there were constant ripple effects attached to everything. That’s where so much of its suspense came from, the constantly present notion that nothing in a single episode was going to waste. “Breaking Bad” was all about every action has an equal or opposite reaction and that led to a one-of-a-kind sense of unease that I got the privilege of experiencing once again with “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.”
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.