Adam Somerset breaks bad in his review of Aaron Paul’s reprisal of Jesse Pinkman in the Netflix original El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. WARNING: This review contains MAJOR SPOILERS.
‘The action follows a course A-B; what you are writing are the obstacles.’ That was Anthony Minghella, as gifted a teacher of writers as writer and film-maker himself. It is a phrase that springs to mind in the watching of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The sequel to the 65 episodes of Breaking Bad, that have preceded it, begins where they ended. Jesse Pinkman is liberated from slavery to Uncle Jack and at the wheel of a vehicle. He ends the film also at the wheel of a car. The two hours plus of in-between are the obstacles he has traversed.
The Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes scores 82% from its sweep across 114 critics.
The assembled critics do what they do. All lead in praise of Aaron Paul. But they do not dig into why the film is a source of pleasure. The reasons are threefold.
The first is the riffing on Breaking Bad. The title is a joke as Jesse’s destination is Alaska rather than Mexico adjacent to Albuquerque. Homer and their family, when driven out of Springfield, headed for the same state. It is a visual nod to season six of the original when Walter too was relocated to a snowbound cabin in Maine.
Jesse Pinkman’s first action in his state of freedom is to reconnect with Skinny Pete and Badger. Old Joe makes a reappearance. He was last seen in the mighty-magnet-wiping-the-hard-drive sequence with its comic touch. Jesse walks into Ed’s vacuum cleaner store as a supplicant for his other business activity. Jane from season two and Mike Ehrmantraut feature in flashback. So too does Walt briefly although to no great narrative purpose. It is probable he is there to give the film added marketing heft.
The second is stylistic. The Vince Gilligan style is unique. In particular, the action is unhurried. That is not to the extent of the ‘Fly’ episode- forty minutes locating a fly in Gus Fring’s below-ground laboratory. The Jesse-Ed encounter has a slow deliberation to it. If this were a European production it would be edited to a third shorter in duration. In Gilligan expectation, the action loops back and forth over present and past.
The third is the craft of storytelling. ‘Giri/ Haji’ is getting good feedback this season. TV critics like its graphics, its cross-continental fusion. They say Euro-noir on the BBC Four Saturday nine o’clock slot has got bland. But it suffers seriously from a basic flaw. Good stories are powered by great villains- think the evolution of the Joker from the Jack Nicholson version- and Mr Abbott is not interesting enough.
So the repellent Todd gets a good role. He is the plot mechanism that takes Jesse into the money again. But Gilligan has energised El Camino by creating new bad guys, Neil and Casey. Their role is established with impeccable plot logic by a flashback to the Brotherhood’s meth factory. Their nastiness is demonstrated by a scene, almost unwatchable, in which Jesse is forced to test again and again the strength of their welding that holds him captive. It is an assured piece of plotting. When the showdown occurs- a variant on a motif from the westerns- Jesse can retain his victim-innocence, just as when Todd got his deserts in the last minute of the last episode.
And with the best of all plot constructions, it ends happily. The hero, or anti-hero, is smiling; a new life beckons.
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is available via Netflix now | Note: Be aware of subscription charges.
Adam Somerset often contributes to Wales Arts Review.