Released: 11th October
Seen: 13th October
Adapting a TV series into a film is not easy. The two mediums, though similar in many ways, are substantially different when it comes to storytelling. Going from a 22-42 minute long episode of TV to a two-hour long movie can change what kind of story you’ll focus on. They’re also made for a variety of reasons, either to provide commentary on the series (21 Jump Street or The Brady Bunch Movie), act as a long episode that couldn’t have been done in the normal series runtime (The Simpsons Movie or DuckTales The Movie: Treasure Of The Lost Lamp) or take on the form of a finale and give the series some much needed closure (Serenity or The Drawn Together Movie: The Movie!). There are other reasons to make the leap, like brand name recognition or the increased quality of cocaine, but these three seem to be the biggest reasons. El Camino seems to be going for the “much-needed closure” reasoning but forgot that we didn’t actually need that closure.
Picking up shortly after the end of Breaking Bad, we spend 2 hours following Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as he continues his desperate escape. Broken up with flashbacks to show that the time he spent being tortured by a drug ring was actually super bad, it’s a slow-burning few hours where we watch Jesse try to get some money that he knows was hidden by Todd (Jesse Plemons) and use that money to buy himself safe passage to Alaska where he can try to start a brand new life away from the world of meth-making.
So… why does this film exist? Why was this a story we needed to have told to us? Because the ending of Breaking Bad is one of the most brilliant endings in TV history that left pretty much nothing left to talk about. Spoilers for a show that ended 6 years ago and that you should’ve watched before even thinking about seeing this movie but, Breaking Bad literally ends with Walter White being killed, all the meth makers dead, pretty much everyone is dead except for Jesse who flees from the scene in an El Camino while crying with joy that he’s finally free. There’s nothing to tell after that, the entire story behind Breaking Bad was to take Mr Chips and turn him into Scarface (the creator’s description) and once they did that, there was nothing else. There’s certainly nothing else for Jesse whose entire arc is to get away from the world of meth, which he accomplishes the second he drives through those gates and makes it out as the only survivor of the enterprise. There’s nothing left after that, the story is done and you could not ask for anything more. The show was almost designed that way, they knew they didn’t need that long to tell their story and the ending was perfectly planned out that you knew there was no more story to tell… so they don’t tell more story in El Camino.
El Camino is the cinematic equivalent of having a landscape painting that you did 6 years ago hanging in an art gallery, then running in to draw one extra tree in the background. It changes nothing of value and is little more than just the ego of the creator determined to ensure it looks like it’s still being worked on. Everything about this film just felt pointless. The flashbacks? I don’t really think I needed to see the rejected bottle episode where Jesse helps Todd get rid of a dead body, it’s a fun little detail to know that when Jesse was being tortured that it was also kind of emotionally painful but there’s nothing of value here, other than to explain where the money that Jesse needs for this movie is being hidden. I’m all for a cameo by Bryan Cranston but the scene where Walter and Jesse have lunch and talk… adds nothing. Nothing, literally nothing. Heck, the main plot of this movie is just an extended version of that final shot of Jesse from the series, except while the series merely implied that Jesse got away safely, this movie confirms it. So, yay for the movie removing the one piece of mystery that was left up to the audience to decide?
I know I’m coming down hard on this movie so let me just point out that even though it’s completely pointless, it’s still good. It’s a Breaking Bad movie, it’s almost impossible for that to actually be bad because the characters are still so rich and interesting and the visual style is similar to the original. It also helps a lot that you don’t really need to binge the series just beforehand for this to make sense, not only does Netflix provide a handy little “Previously on Breaking Bad” montage to get you up to speed but as long as you know “Jesse didn’t die, he’s on the run” then congrats on knowing everything you will need in order for this to make sense. Sure there are some callbacks and Easter eggs that people will be pulling apart for years because that’s what we do here on the internet but for the actual narrative, you don’t need anything other than the last episode of Breaking Bad and even then, the last 15 minutes will probably do the job for you.
It feels like this would’ve just been a regular episode of the TV series, I could see the flashback of Jesse and Todd dealing with a body being intercut with Walter trying to figure out where Jesse is in the final season, it feels like it would absolutely fit in… and then I remember that it’s an afterthought, it’s there not because it’s what happened but because it’s what’s needed to explain where some money came from for this movie. I know it’s bad form to suggest to a brilliant writer like Vince Gilligan that maybe he didn’t think through his story enough but… why isn’t Jesse going to Walt’s wife to ask for the money? Because Skyler is never even brought up once and there’s a ton of money that she has because of Jesse’s work, it would be more interesting to have a movie where Jesse helps get her closure but… nope, no we’re going to retcon some money into a fridge so he can buy his way out of town, that’ll do I guess.
There are a few really great moments in this film, some shots that’re genuinely impressive and show an obvious increase in budget while also sticking to the familiar aesthetic that made Breaking Bad stand out. A lot of really tense moments play out well, especially with the background knowledge that Jesse is technically a wanted criminal and at any second could be arrested and put back in a concrete box. The acting is universally sublime, especially Aaron Paul who just fell back into Jesse like he’d only stopped playing the character yesterday. It’s honestly impressive how everyone involved just fell back into their old roles after so many years, even the brief Bryan Cranston moment is a triumph, proving that Bryan is one of our greatest living actors since he did this cameo during a 2-day break from his Tony-Winning performance in Network. He went from playing Howard Beale to sliding right back into being Walter White and then ran back to Beale again in a matter of days… that’s insane. There are a lot of really good moments here, but I keep hitting that wall of “BUT WE WERE DONE!”. Sure, it’s great to see Jesse dealing with the demons that were thrust upon him during 6 years of making meth for a sociopath but… he sure does deal with them quickly. Forgive me for saying it but how realistic is it that Jesse is completely fine after 3 days (tops) when he was tortured for months? I’m not even saying I needed more time, in order for him to properly deal with the intense trauma he’s been through you would need another season of TV… but that’s why you end on a shot that shows him getting away and leave the rest up to the audience to interpret, you don’t need to actually show exactly where the car ends because you can just trust the audience has an idea…. Just a thought.
El Camino is the movie no one asked for telling a story no one needed about a character who already had closure and a great finale. It claims to be tying all the loose ends up but there weren’t any, it’s just fondling a bunch of knots and acting like it’s doing something. It’s not a bad viewing experience, I enjoyed the extra few hours I had with one of TV’s best characters but the entire time I sat there just wondering “Why are we here? Why do I need to listen to you? What have you got to say to me that you didn’t say perfectly with one shot of you laughing and crying at the same time” and my answer was nothing, there is no reason for this to exist other than they want to milk that name for everything they’ve got while it’s still fresh enough in people’s heads for it to matter. So yeah, it’s fine and Breaking Bad fans are going to enjoy it because it’s a little more of a show they like, but you will also miss nothing if you don’t see it because it was never needed in the first place.