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Movie

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
(2019)

 

I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besides Breaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

And maybe there’s a bit of fear in there too. I doubt anyone stipulated that, if he was returning to the well, Walter White had to be in there – I mean, this is Netflix, laissez-faire is how it is, until they cancel you – but he includes a flashback nevertheless, in a movie that is so predicated on the same, it barely has a chance to breathe or find anything approaching an identity of its own. These are the things you loved about the series, Gilligan seems to be saying. Oh, and here’s a bone of some other stuff that’s happened to Jesse since. Which is basically his escape to Alaska. I think I’d rather have re-joined him somewhere down the line, rather than Gilligan meticulously documenting the hours and days subsequent to his taking off. But that’s what we’ve got, so…

Jesse’s quest to secure some escape money requires Gilligan to fashion a backstory showing where Todd (Jesse Plemons) stashed his cash. At least, before he stashed it somewhere else. If this is slightly inelegant – Gilligan isn’t able to pull existing threads from the original but has to weave in new ones – if feels less so because he does create a series of engrossing scenarios. While, on the one hand, you have the return of Robert Forster (RIP) as a character he played right near the end of the series’ run, a fugitive relocation specialist, you also have Gilligan coming up with two new characters (the always great Scott Shepherd as Casey and Scott MacArthur as Neil), who require a flashback to establish that Jesse has previously met them. Again, it isn’t the most elegant of manoeuvres.

The Neil and Casey plotline nevertheless provides the dramatic meat of El Camino, including a fine sustained sequence in which Jesse first breaks into Todd’s apartment and spends the night searching for his money; when he finally finds it, he’s inevitably interrupted, by the duo posing as cops. The following confrontation allows that Jesse is still something of a resourceful idiot, failing to recognise them as impostors, but then compelled to revisit them to ask of them the shortfall he needs for Forster to deliver him from peril. The subsequent “hero” scene has Jesse despatch both antagonists in a duel, providing a highly unlikely – on all sides of the equation – if satisfyingly cathartic resolution to his trials.

Flashbacks wise, we naturally get all the favourites – Krysten Ritter, Jonathan Banks, Bryan Cranston in a rather obvious bald wig – but such fan-service feels inessential in all cases. While they’re nice enough to see, they’re ultimately a disservice to Jesse’s tale, even cumulatively suggesting Gilligan might be concerned Paul can’t carry the story himself. Which he more than can.

I don’t think Paul is necessarily a great all-rounder – of the various sore thumbs in Exodus: Gods and Kings, he stuck out by far the most painfully – but in a role like this, he’s riveting. The flashback scenes that work best are all ones between Jesse and Todd, showcasing the captive, oppressed Pinkman; Paul gets to follow this up with convincingly disoriented PTSD. And as a director, Gilligan is particularly assured in characterising his protagonist’s mental state, while in general embracing the opportunity to go more cinematic.

Gilligan leaves Jesse much where he left him before: free. More emphatically so, perhaps, but enough to justify El Camino? I’d say probably not. He hasn’t convinced me he really needed to tell this story, and the dominance of flashbacks serve to underline that. As for further revisits? It might be inherent to the character that he needs a foil, or to be a foil, in which case Gilligan would really need a proper idea. But then, if he has a proper idea, it should really be in the service of a whole new original series (or film).

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