When a film becomes a source of cinematic competence, the ensuing results are infinitely satisfying. Such is the case with Vince Gilligan’s El Camino, a picture that continues the story of Breaking Bad. The film follows Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a former meth cook who was part of a secret drug empire. Now, Jesse’s dark life is known by the masses, and that spells trouble. As the cops search every nook and cranny of Albuquerque, Jesse attempts to sustain his freedom. In time, he embarks on a difficult journey, hoping to build a better life.
Before I get into the overall quality of El Camino, I must focus on the film’s usage of diversity. In this case, the film leaves a lot to be desired. If you are looking for powerful, well rounded minorities, you have come to the wrong flick. Tess Harper returns as Jesse’s mother. She gives a fine performance, but her character isn’t a major component within the storyline. Marla Gibbs (an African American performer) pops up in the narrative, but her role is microscopic and weightless. Toward the end, Johnny Ortiz (a Mexican American actor) plays a busboy, a role that requires him to stand around and do nothing. In all honesty, it would have been interesting for the film to analyze Albuquerque’s diverse atmosphere. The state of New Mexico has many Latino and Hispanic residents, so in this cinematic case, the film could have explored those communities in greater detail, giving us a more accurate and vibrant setting in the process.
Make no mistake about it, Gilligan has created a continuation that earns its place in the annals of Breaking Bad lore. El Camino isn't a forced entry in an otherwise brilliant world of fiction. This is a satisfying take, which manages to give closure to an iconic character of fiction. Gilligan continues the tradition of the show, zeroing in on humanistic contemplation, harsh consequences, and gray morality. His fundamental focus toward cause and effect lingers throughout the narrative, latching onto us like a monstrous leach.
Like the show, El Camino is very much about consequences and missed opportunities. It doesn’t sugarcoat the concept of existential corruption. Instead, it presents an unfiltered vision of flawed living, showing us that mistakes diminish humanistic happiness. As Jesse, Aaron Paul turns in a great performance, consisting of experience and believable grit. When Paul speaks, there is sincerity, determination, and pain. When words aren’t spoken, Paul’s precise body language paints the portrait of a desperate, broken soul. His portrayal allows us to feel the mileage of his character, and in turn, the journey is overflowing with emotion.
For a majority of the film, Gilligan puts us in confined spaces, making us feel the pressure and discomfort that comes with being a fugitive of the law. There is always a fear of being caught, and as audience members, we sense that there is no room for error. As Jesse’s journey continues, Gilligan and cinematographer Marshall Adams focus on the barren landscapes of New Mexico, a modern frontier of sorts. The wide shots wonderfully imbue the film with shades of western-like spectacle. There is also a sense of photographic creativity, which gives the film a visually intriguing identity.
Gilligan wonderfully utilizes flashbacks, bringing older characters into the cinematic fray. Although there is one misstep. At the end, we are given a scene that doesn’t serve much purpose. A legendary character returns, but this homecoming feels like a classic case of shoehorning in a cinematic element. Thankfully, the rest of the characters feel naturally placed within the film, adding context and meaning to a narrative that consists of great urgency. Whereas many films use flashbacks in the worst of ways, Gilligan uses these scenes as a cinematic gateway, designed to make sense out of the strategic proceedings.
Eventually, the villains are revealed. While the actors bring their A game, the actual characters lack antagonistic potency. Part of Breaking Bad's beauty was its villains. We felt their formidability, and as a result, the stakes were always high. Here the villains are relatively simple. In all honesty, they are sloppy and inexperienced. Thus, when Jesse takes them on, the tension isn’t as high as it should be. Gilligan’s utilization of gunslinger mythology breathes a unique sense of life into the final conflict, but unfortunately, the outcome is predictable. Also, it should be noted that the flick’s predictability is evident at the onset. Early on, Gilligan’s writing tells us too much.
I highly recommend El Camino. Clearly, it doesn’t reach the heights of Breaking Bad, but that’s okay. To have such huge expectations would be unrealistic and unwise. As a complete film, it’s a perfect sendoff for Jesse, and in terms of the larger narrative, it feels perfectly in tune with what came before. Check it out!
Originally published by Dillon McCarty for Incluvie on October 18, 2019.