Breaking Bad ended with its protagonists in two utterly disparate states of clarity and
ambiguity. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lay dying on the floor of a crystal meth lab, the only place he now seemed to love with any sincerity. Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) sped off into the night, laughing maniacally at a future that was completely unknown. El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie begins where the original show ended: Jesse driving away in the titular car, with the film following the next 48 hours of his life as he tries desperately to salvage a future with a tiny glimmer of hope.
Yet, that is only partially what El Camino focuses on. Written and directed by Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan, the film is as much about Jesse’s time in captivity at the hands of Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) and his Nazi gang as it is about the present. Gilligan depicts the humiliation and torture Jesse suffered during his enslavement with subtlety and a surprising lack of violence. Instead, we’re shown how the casual indifference Todd and the gang felt towards Jesse, and his suffering slowly crushed his resolve to tiny fragments.
The film weaves a delicately complex narrative and shifts seamlessly with great
confidence between past and present. Gilligan’s love for expansive direction is on full
display – with some gorgeous, bravura wide-shots of the Albuquerque landscape, and
a stunning time-lapse which features six Jesses in one shot. Aaron Paul is fantastic
as Jesse: for a leading role his dialogue is surprisingly sparse and yet Paul conveys
so many ideas and emotions through his body language. As Jesse’s situation
becomes more desperate and frenzied, Paul seems to become steadier – as if Jesse
can only now exist in the chaos he so badly wants to escape. There is also a star
supporting turn by Jesse Plemons as Todd, he brings a grounded realism to the
childlike, utter sociopathic nature of his character.
However, El Camino does not feel remotely like a film. It feels like the feature-length
next episode of Breaking Bad and elements of its narrative are too fragmented for
anybody who hasn’t seen the TV series to understand. This leaves the film feeling
slightly trapped, tethered to Breaking Bad when it seems Gilligan wants it to be seen
as a stand-alone story.
El Camino is a surprising and expertly crafted coda to one of TV’s most important
dramas. Paul gives a career-best performance as a character who is broken, who’s
scars from his past may never heal, but still clings to the notion that his future can be
drenched in sunlight rather than wreathed in shadows.