FILM REVIEW – EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE. With Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Robert Forster, Scott MacArthur, Bryan Cranston. Written and directed by Vince Gilligan. Rated TV-MA for profanity and graphic violence. 124 minutes.
“Breaking Bad” aired its series finale six years ago last month, but it really had more like three final episodes, with the show’s waning weeks sneakily providing viewers every endgame imaginable for Bryan Cranston’s chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White. Personally, I like to think of him breathing his last all alone in that snowbound cabin with nothing to watch but “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” on DVD (two copies) while I know plenty of folks who prefer the absurd, robot-machine-gun blaze of glory with which Walter went out rescuing his onetime pupil and seemingly doomed sidekick Jesse Pinkman.
The show’s creator Vince Gilligan was lauded for making “Breaking Bad” one of the precious few popular programs to give fussy fans the closure they were looking for, in part by giving them all the endings they could possibly have ever wanted. Maybe that sense of oversaturation is why I’ve never quite cottoned to “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel series that’s gone back in time to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s on a fictional universe I already feel quite finished with, thanks. Recent, wonderful re-visitations to “Twin Peaks” and “Deadwood” wrapped up shows that had been abruptly canceled without being given the chance of a proper send-off. But did “Breaking Bad” really leave anything left unsaid?
As it turns out, no. But EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE throws another ending onto the pile all the same. It’s a completely unnecessary and terrifically entertaining exercise in fan service answering questions nobody asked. When we last saw Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman he was (literally) screaming down the highway in a stolen car, having just been sprung from the cage where a bunch of scary Aryan Brotherhood bikers were making him cook meth according to Walter’s secret specs. “El Camino,” named after Jesse’s getaway vehicle, chronicles his attempts to get the heck out of Albuquerque.
It’s an agreeably stripped-down affair, more like an epilogue to the series than a standalone feature of its own. Written and directed by Gilligan, the movie conjures that familiar “Breaking Bad” mojo in which characters are constantly escaping out of a dangerous situation into an alternative that’s infinitely worse. So much of the story relies on reversals and surprises it’s probably only fair for me to say that Jesse’s on the lam and trying to come up with enough cash to buy a new identity and safe passage to Alaska from Robert Forster’s unassumingly sinister vacuum cleaner salesman.
Forster’s once again magnificent in a role that probably reads as ridiculous on the page, his gruff, flatline authority like a brick wall off which Jesse’s jumpy energy bounces in vain. His time in captivity has left Pinkman covered in scars and racked with PTSD, and Paul brings a hollowed-out sadness to the character that’s a far cry from the electric doofus routine he perfected on the program. In flashbacks (which are perhaps over-abundant and filled with star cameos from your favorites) it’s shocking to once again see the light that’s since gone out of his eyes.
“El Camino” has it’s share of white-knuckle set-pieces, and you’d swear at least 20% of the movie is Aaron Paul hunched quivering in the forefront of shots trying hard not to be discovered by folks milling around the back. Some of these situations call to mind Gilligan’s famous writers’ room trick of starting out by sticking the characters in the most impossible scenario they could come up with and then trying to write their way out of it. In fact, there are quite a few spots in the movie where I was expecting the show’s old cliffhanger commercial breaks.
I guess this is all a long way of saying that “El Camino” is often enormous fun to watch even if it’s rather redundant and has no real reason to exist. Cleverly bookended by contrasting shots of Jesse driving down the highway, the film ends on a quiet note of hard-won comfort and the hope that all these talented people will now move on and find new stories to tell.•••
Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.
I filed this story a few hours before the news broke that the great Robert Forster had passed away at the age of 78. One of those guys who made you smile the moment he walked onscreen, Forster’s warmth and easygoing authenticity had a way of making whatever he was in that much better. He was the sweetest guy I’ve ever interviewed, and what better sendoff to a working actor of over fifty years than to still be stealing scenes on your dying day. He’ll be terribly missed.