El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is a Netflix spinoff worthy of its predecessor

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EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE (Vince Gilligan). 122 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix. Rating: NNNN

Breaking Bad may have wrapped up the story of Walter White in 2013, but Vince Gilligan and his collaborators can’t bring themselves to leave its world behind.

And while though default position is that no story as clever, compelling and self-contained as Breaking Bad really needs any further elaboration … well, with Gilligan I’ve learned to make an exception.

After all, when he and Peter Gould spun a comic-relief supporting character into his own prequel series, the result was Better Call Saul – which has become one of the most remarkable and moving character studies on television precisely because we know where its story is going.

So when the news of another spinoff project came out a couple of months ago, following the trajectory of Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman immediately after the events of the Breaking Bad finale, I chose cautious optimism. And yeah: Vince Gilligan can do whatever the hell he wants to do with this world.

It’s been six years since Jesse drove off into the darkness at the end of Breaking Bad’s finale, freed from the Neo-Nazis who’d held him captive for months. Jesse was the only person who could cook the high-quality meth that he and his partner, chemist-turned-criminal mastermind, Walter White, used to rise through the Albuquerque underworld; White’s final act was to liberate Jesse, and to murder as many of his captors as possible.

After a contemplative flashback, Gilligan picks up the story precisely where he left it: Walter White is dead, and Jesse is steering a dead man’s car through the night, a free man but also a person of interest in a spectacular gangland killing. The first order of business is to find a place to hide; the second is to figure out what to do next.

Like Better Call Saul, El Camino takes a huge gamble by telling a Breaking Bad story without Walter White. But Gilligan knows what he’s doing: just as the prequel series is informed by the knowledge that Walter White’s eventual arrival looms in the lives of its characters like a gathering storm, El Camino unfolds in the wreckage of that storm. Think of it as the final movement of a disaster movie, with Jesse having survived the catastrophic explosion but still trying to outrun the shock wave.

El Camino also puts Aaron Paul front and centre in a way that Breaking Bad never really allowed. That was Walt’s story, and Bryan Cranston’s seething, magnetic performance intentionally overwhelmed everything in its path. Jesse was necessarily sidelined in the final season, a hostage Walt had to save; it’s only now that we get to see the emotional and physical damage Jesse’s been carrying all this time. The suspense of the movie isn’t in its moment-to-moment tension, which is awfully entertaining; it comes from watching our new hero find a way to reconcile the things he’s done with the new man he wants to be.

It’s not quite as gruelling as it sounds, mainly because Gilligan and Paul are so damn good at finding the comic moments in Jesse’s overconfidence: he’s smarter than people think he is – Walt was an excellent teacher, after all – but he’s not as smart as he believes himself to be.

I will say this about the structure of the plot, which shifts between Jesse’s past and present as he tries to guarantee himself a future: it’s awfully clever, letting Gilligan bring back beloved actors and characters in the flashbacks while also slipping in some new ones.

It’s genuinely heartwarming to see Matt Jones and Charles Baker return as Jesse’s old drug-dealing pals Badger and Skinny Pete, their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act just as exquisitely drawn as it was on the show. It’s helpful to hear a character’s presumed fate confirmed in a newscast. And it’s chilling to realize that a large part of the movie’s flashbacks will be devoted to a day Jesse spent in the company of Todd, the bikers’ affable but lethal henchman.

Jesse’s time with Todd – played, once again, by Jesse Plemons in a performance of truly unnerving blankness – is the parallel story that gives El Camino its ticking clock and its biggest gut punch. We see Jesse at his lowest, and we understand how he got there; we also get to see him fight his way out of that mental space over the course of the film and reclaim a certain amount of power.

I can’t really argue that any of it is necessary, narratively speaking. But it’s as good as we could have hoped, and a fine way to close out the story begun on the show. And if Vince Gilligan decides he wants to make a movie about one of the fry cooks at Los Pollos Hermanos taking over for Gus Fring, I’m willing to see where that goes too.

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A life-long Torontonian, Norman became the senior film writer for NOW in early 2008. Previously he had reviewed films for Metro newspapers across Canada and covered every video format imaginable (yes, even Beta).

Read more by Norman Wilner

October 12, 2019

5:27 PM