Tuesday, October 15, 2019

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

Director: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Aaron Paul, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Scott MacArthur, Tom Bower, Kevin Rankin, Larry Hankin, Tess Harper, Marla Gibbs, Jonathan Banks
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: NR

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie' **

When Breaking Bad's last episode, "Felina," aired in 2013, it was one of the few examples of a legendary show sticking its landing, delivering a series finale that many considered a perfect send-off. Running five seasons and not a single episode longer than warranted, creator Vince Gilligan knew the story he wanted to tell, and while pieces on the board may have been moved along the way, you got the impression the eventual destination was always clear. It's also the rare finale that's grown in stature since it aired, with initial rumblings of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) Mr. Chips to Scarface journey wrapping up a little too tidily beginning to dissipate over time. So the big issue becomes whether any part of this is worth toying with.

With a current prequel series in AMC's Better Call Saul creatively performing better than it has any right to, you'd figure Gilligan would want to get out while he can, further preserving the integrity of both shows. But there's always been that nagging Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) issue. When Jesse escaped that Nazi compound in the final minutes of the series, screaming in agony and joy as he drove that El Camino right through the gate, we were left to speculate what would become of him, while also wondering if we're better off not knowing. And whether our imaginations could provide a more satisfying conclusion for him than anything Gilligan could cook up, leaving it a thread better left unresolved. So the big question becomes whether any of this is even worth toying with.

With Netflix's feature film, El Camino, Gilligan takes a calculated risk in attempting to continue Jesse's story by adding an epilogue to "Felina," while also creating an entity that holds its own in the Breaking Bad universe he revisits. Is it necessary? Not terribly, as what happens in the 122 minute film to the embattled, traumatized Jesse following his escape is probably very similar to what fans envisioned in their minds. Does it in any way harm the series? Absolutely not, as the quality of writing and directing here is very much on the same level of the show at its peak with key differences being the narrative stakes and the absence of its previous protagonist/antagonist. This is Jesse's story now and probably the most impressive thing about El Camino is how far it leans into that, delivering a claustrophobic character study effectively doubling as a taught, suspenseful crime thriller. And for a series consistently praised for how cinematic it looked, the feature provides additional evidence as to why.

This doesn't feel like an extended episode of the series, or a forced reunion. There's a very functional structure to the screenplay, sharing commonalities with the show's best episodes that seamlessly alternate between character-centric flashbacks and present-day action scenes. And it does this while somehow feeling entirely different from all the episodes that preceded it. As a standalone movie, it's tremendous, even as its success as a continuation of the show will proabably be debated. But it's ultimately all about Aaron Paul's complex, nuanced performance as one of TV's greatest characters. Experiencing Jesse's desperation, it's easy to forget whether or not we "need" to return to this. It just simply feels great to be back.

Walter White is dead. Gaining revenge on the Nazis while sacraficing himself to save Jesse, the latter fled the compound in captor Todd Alquist's (Jesse Plemons) El Camino. Physically and emotionally scarred from his imprisonment, a bearded, dissheveled Jesse must now decide what's next, remaining a"person of interest" in the Heisenberg case.  Considered a dangerous fugitive with reports of the compound massacre all over the news, he manages to evade authorities long enough to make it to the two people he knows he can trust: good friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). Far from criminal masterminds, the two burnouts come through in giving their pal a place to clean up and hide untill they come up with a plan. But with authorities rapidly closing in, Jesse quickly sets out on his journey with a very specific goal in mind. To get there, he'll have to make sacrifices, rely on his resourcfulness and come to face-to face with his past in order to even get a shot at starting over or having any kind of future ahead of him.

The narrative signposts in El Camino are always to clear to Jesse before becoming apparent to us, with Gilligan keeping the character a step ahead the entire time and completely driving the action. This keeps us on pins and needles anticipating his every move, often taking him on detours and destinations we rarely expect he'll go. In hindsight, each step makes sense, but in the moment we become Jesse's captive audience, wondering who or what he'll run into next, or how it'll tie to the ordeal he's been through.

It's to Gilligan and Paul's credit the psychological implications of Jesse's recent imprisonment isn't brushed over, nor is the very real possibility he'll be put into a situation where he'll need to kill again, if his survival depends on it. Considering everything he's been through, it makes logical sense that he's a functioning PTSD sufferer haunted by not only his own morally questionable past actions, but all the manipulation he endured at the hands of Walt. While the deaths of Jane (Krysten Ritter), Andrea (Emily Rios) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) haunt Jesse, they're never explicitly mentioned. We get it. And Gilligan gets that we do, letting Jesse's actions and a few carefully chosen flashbacks do all the work.

Since the finale was in many ways already an epilogue unto itself (with many still considering "Ozymandius" the true climax) rather than a continuation, it's a touchy subject which characters should reappear. If this was merely "fan service," it's safe bet we'd see Hank (Dean Norris), Skylar (Anna Gunn), Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Marie (Betsy Brandt), Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), either in flashbacks or the present, depending upon their fates. Of course, it doesn't help that Jesse's business with those aforementioned characters is either extremely limited, non-existent, or finished. With only two encounters with Skylar during the series and not so much as a a scene with Walt Jr., there's little reason for them to intereact now.

Similarly, it would take too much work to be able to logically tie the post-BrBa events of Better Call Saul to Jesse's journey, so an encounter with Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) Cinnabon Gene alter ego was always going to be a long shot. If there are any complaints about Gilligan's creative decisions, it'll likely be regarding who does show up and why, since there's a big question mark surrounding what any potential returnee could add at this point.

Jesse Plemons' Todd wasn't likely topping anyone's prediction list to return considering his death in the finale, but here he is, in an extended flashback sequence that initially comes off as a curious use of time. After all, was anyone really begging for a deeper glimpse into Todd's disturbed psyche, especially considering our knowledge of how things turned out for him. But a funny thing happens as Gilligan keeps returning to this oddly specific flashback and Plemons' role grows larger, evolving into what amounts to a co-lead for what seems like half the picture. When the basis for Todd's inclusion presents itself and we discover how he directly and indirectly impacts Jesse's present quest, it all starts coming together. This makes it easy to further appreciate Plemons' performance opposite Paul, and just how twisted their dynamic became while Jesse was imprisoned, revealing Todd as even more childlike and sociopathic than originally suspected. But Gilligan's blueprint is clear: This will be about what Jesse needs to collect in order to move forward.

From then on, it's a pretty wild ride, with Jesse trying to evade capture and gather enough cash to reach what we should have known all along was his ultimate goal: A rescheduled appointment with Ed "The Disappearer" Galbraith (Robert Forster). Having missed his initial pick-up with the vacuum repairman, he's now looking for another chance at a new identity, just as Walt and Saul received before him. Hopefully, with better results. But it won't be easy since Ed has his principles and doesn't like being stood up, priding himself on doing business the right way.

Jesse's verbal interplay with Ed makes for the film's strongest section, as Forster reprises and significantly expands on the crucial role he so intriguingly played in the series' penultimate episode, "Granite State." All that occurs when Jesse enters this vacuum store is gold, with the extended sequence crackling with nervous tension, sarcasm and humor. Much will made made of this being Forster's final role (with the Oscar-nominated actor passing the day of its release), but regardless of that tragic irony, it's a carefully measured performance worthy of the highest praise, cool and calm as can be in the presence of Paul's manic energy. If the latter owns this movie, then Forster's the next best thing in it.

While it was never a question that Bryan Cranston would show up as Walter White, the "when" and "how" remained a well-guarded secret. It does kind of come out of nowhere, while managing to make perfect sense when considering every flashback and present-day encounter in the film centers around Jesse coming to terms with his past in order to build a future for himself. It's fitting we join the two when their partnership was at its early stage, before Walt's hubris poisoned it. He was still ex-chemistry teacher "Mr. White," and his cancer diagnosis made him as desperate for money as former cooking partner Jesse is now, looking to build a nest egg for his family when he's gone. That's how things started, and while we know how they turned out, it's intriguing that Gilligan picked this previously unseen diner conversation for Walt's cameo, with their trusted, duct taped RV parked in the lot.

Of course, Cranston slides right back into the role like he never left, playing a weak, uncontrollably coughing version of Walt who has yet to become the alpha in their partnership. Instead, he relies on Jesse, while expressing a genuine concern and disappointment at why his former student wasn't thinking about his own future, as a friend or father would, if not for that hint of condescension.  At first, the scene seems almost superfluous within the context of this movie, but try not to marvel again at the surreal sight of them sitting across from each other again. Or deny that much of Jesse's survival now depends on the many lessons imparted and inflicted on him by Walt, the very person that caused his life to unravel. Wrong and arrogant about a lot, Walt's belief that Jesse was wasting his potential was always spot-on, even as the mentor failed to take his own advice, looking for success in all the wrong places. It just took all of this to go down for Jesse to finally realize it.

It's appropriate that the two characters Jesse gleaned the most from and forged his most meaningful human connections bookend his story. Mike and Jane may both be victims of Walt and while it's too late for them, he still has a shot if he can evade authorities and make it out of this alive. Fans complaining Walt had too tidy a resolution will likely have a field day criticizing Jesse's send-off, but it's unquestionably the right ending, and really the only one, even if you feel no further closure was necessary. But for a character whose screen time did become increasingly limited as the series drew to a close, it's no small feat that we know more about Jesse Pinkman now than we did going in.

To say no one needed El Camino more than Aaron Paul isn't a knock on his immeasurable talent, but instead an indictment on an industry that failed to give him the showcase he's deserved since the series concluded. Back in the role he belongs, we're reminded that in the six years since it would be highly unusual for him, or any other working actor, to get material at that level. And while it may be true that the series or its fans didn't need it, we'd be fools to complain about getting more, especially since it's about as accurate a representation of Breaking Bad's best that we'll ever get in feature form.           

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