El Camino is a Long Episode of Breaking Bad, and That’s Fine

El Camino is a very long episode of Breaking Bad. It makes no pretension toward being anything else, and the result is the kind of good-looking, understated thriller you don’t see much of anymore. It may not have as much to say as its most obvious “get the cash and get out quick” points of comparison — Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which also starred the late Robert Forster, and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. But it has tension, beautiful camera work, and, with the exception of a few awkward pieces of news-as-exposition and the initial dissonance of seeing older actors presented as their younger selves, an effortlessly engrossing pace.

Writer/director Vince Gilligan has a real facility for balancing his visual flourishes with long breathers of motionless, attentive framing. Smooth tracking shots like a late scene in which Jesse circles and then climbs a barbed-wire fence rivet the action firmly in the bodies and headspace of the film’s characters. An earlier overhead shot of Todd’s apartment repositions Jesse as a scurrying insect, a separate little incarnation of him running around each dollhouse room as he tears the place apart in search of his former captor’s hidden fortune. It lasts just long enough that one can admire the effect before it drives ahead. 

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El Camino’s color palette is sere, all tans and grays and browns, and the blocking in any given shot’s depth of field is never less than thoughtful. As Jesse Pinkman, last seen fleeing the site of his imprisonment and torture by white nationalist meth dealers in the titular car, Aaron Paul’s slow emergence from traumatized numbness into his old sensitive but hot-tempered self is a joy to watch.

If the film has a serious flaw it’s that it opts not to dig deeper into Jesse’s psychology, spending its time instead on the kind of clockwork setup that drove Breaking Bad. Only here there’s no next episode, no time to generate the nauseating tension that made the show one of the most technically perfect crime dramas ever made. When Jesse kills a man near the end of the film it feels like something that could only be contextualized properly with another hour and a half of movie.

Instead, El Camino races past the event. Jesse becoming hardened to the emotional toll of violence is a rote idea, far less interesting than the near-catatonic depression to which his murder of the Libertarian chemist Gale drove him way back in season 4. Paul, who looks much less physically vulnerable at 40 than he did in his twenties when the show began, still communicates his essential sensitivity through shrinking, evasive body language and his sad-eyed stare, but the film provides much less to which that performance can connect than the show did. There’s a great deal to like about El Camino, from Jessie Plemons’s turn as mild-mannered, dull-witted sociopath Todd to the subtle pleasures of Gilligan’s direction, but too little pain to sharpen the film’s edge.

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