TV-MA. It goes into very familiar places for fans of Breaking Bad. While AMC tended to silence the language of Breaking Bad, Netflix allows the language to flow freely. There's no censorship here. While the gore itself is left to a fair minimum, the movie is teeming with brutality. The movie is about torture and focuses on characters that have very little respect for human life. It's R because it feels R.
DIRECTOR: Vince Gilligan
It's like rediscovering an old favorite tee shirt. I guess it is appropriate that I'm writing this on a computer that I enjoy writing on. Sure, the edge cuts my skin, but the formatting on the screen is absolutely ideal. Kind of like Breaking Bad. See, I'm one of those people who swears by Better Call Saul. While the voice is very similar, considering that Vince Gilligan is the creative mind behind both shows, Breaking Bad has something that is just a little different than Better Call Saul. I thought I wasn't lacking for Breaking Bad in my life. El Camino proved me wrong.
I seem to be watching a lot of movies that are extensions from ended television shows. I had this whole run of Star Trek movies and very recently, I wrote about the Downton Abbey movie. With the whole Martin Scorsese nonsense about the state of cinema lately, I don't want to be the guy who says that films about television shows are second class movies. That seems to be kind of a jerk thing to say. But I think I believe that when it comes to both Star Trek and Downton Abbey. Yeah, it's snobby. But I also get that those films really feel like they are for fans of the show. I can't deny that El Camino might only work for Breaking Bad fans. It's a bummer to say that. But while something like Downton Abbey or Star Trek seem to be guilty pleasure extensions of the main property, El Camino does something that separates it from the herd of TV spinoffs. If Scorsese has a problem with theme park entertainment, I don't think that El Camino necessarily fits in that category. A lot of that comes from the way that Breaking Bad is considered prestige television. It's weird to think of Breaking Bad as high art. I don't know if a ton of television has really crossed that threshold in to the canon, but Breaking Bad probably got close to that. I can't deny that a lot of Breaking Bad works because of a cool concept. It is very cool and edgy and whatnot. But what stops both Breaking Bad and El Camino simply from being a cool concept show into something greater is the character development throughout the show. I probably will never find myself involved in cooking meth or have anything to do with meth as a concept. But somehow, Jesse Pinkman, and to a different extent, Walter White, are both relatable characters. I mean, I have no commonalities with them, but I can see their inherent human struggle.
El Camino loves juxtaposition. We can acknowledge that Jesse Pinkman has done some stuff in his day. It's hard to comment on El Camino without at least putting it in context with Breaking Bad. But Jesse is this sympathetic character. I forgot so much of what happened during the run of the show, even as far as the finale. But El Camino instantly put me back into the emotional relationship that I had with Jesse in Breaking Bad. He became this sympathetic antihero, in some ways seeking redemption. The show implied that Jesse's year in captivity broke his spirits in a lot of ways. I mean, my brain filled in the gaps of what Jesse had to be going through, but I never knew that I really needed to find out exactly what was going on in that year. Enter Todd, the character who just epitomizes evil on that show. That's a pretty impressive title considering how many evil characters were on that show. But Todd and his complete detachment from empathy is the most sadistic character. Having him as the juxtaposition for Jesse is inspired. Todd, played masterfully by Jesse Plemons, is haunting. He's so haunting that Aaron Paul's Jesse Pinkman comes across as downright heroic throughout the story. I'm thinking of characters who live in just horrific conditions. After my long streak of prepping for Joker, we see Jesse who has gotten his fair share of misery, acting like a broken animal. El Camino acts as a tale about recovering from abuse and it is because of Jesse and Todd's difference that really highlight those moments. Todd doesn't really have a care in the world. His life is full of inconveniences at best, but he isn't really put out by much. He has a dead body of someone he actually kind of liked just lying in his kitchen. Todd never gets worried about whether they will be caught or not. He just prefers not to get caught. Jesse, someone who never even met the cleaning lady, is genuinely moved by her death. He sees the devil and he wants no part of it. He's fearful of Todd, as he should be. It's because of Todd's evil that the pizza scene works.
That pizza scene, guys? Let me tell you. Besides the fact that it inspired my wife and I to get a late night Papa John's second dinner, it was crushing. And it totally made sense for the character. To say that Jesse didn't shoot Todd because he was afraid or that he was selfish would do the character a disservice. There are some times in storytelling that we know that there are a flood of reasons why a character acts on his or her impulses. One of those moments (and I'm proud to make a connection between El Camino and John Steinbeck) is George's choice at the end of Of Mice and Men. We have so many reasons that George shot Lennie that we can't say it's one thing. Jesse's choice not to shoot Todd had so many things going on there that I could talk about them for a long time and we still wouldn't be clear exactly what happened there. Jesse was tortured and made to be subhuman. Todd is this confident killer who is wildly unpredictable and has gotten far with violence. One element of it is that Jesse has been broken as a human being and is terrified of the devil. Another element has to be that he doesn't really believe that Todd would die. Todd keeps surviving and Jesse keeps failing. It's the Reek sequence from Game of Thrones. Also, I really get the vibe that Jesse really wants to be done with killing. That's supported by the shootout sequence later in the film. But also, and this is the most heartbreaking, I think he really wants that pizza. It sounds dumb. Also, there's a good chance that Todd was completely lying about the pizza. But that is a basic, baby-step towards humanity. He wants normality and that's found with pizza and beer. There's probably half a dozen other reasons. As much as he hates his cage, that cage makes moral decisions for him. There's probably an odd safety to the cage. While 90% wants to be free of that cage, there's still 10% of moral freedom. I don't know. There's stuff to unpack.
What I love about El Camino is that it was fan service, but it didn't feel like fan service. We saw the people we wanted to see again. It made callbacks and nods to things that we once thought important. But it also felt like this was a story that Vince Gilligan just wanted to tell. Downton Abbey kind of felt like the fans goaded Julian Fellows into doing another one. El Camino had really tight storytelling done within a reasonable budget. Do you know why I feel this? Because they didn't de-age anyone. Especially not Aaron Paul. That scene, the scene that everyone was waiting for? Didn't de-age him for a second. They showed images of Jesse from season one of Breaking Bad in the movie and they still pretended that's what 40-year-old Aaron Paul looked like then. And I didn't care for a second. They have so much footage, but they knew it was about the craft and not about the look that sold it. Sure, it's a little goofy, but it worked. I loved it. That gave the whole thing heart. It wasn't just fan service. It was a chance to tell a really good story instead of just revisiting characters. I'm really glad we revisited those characters, but that's all gravy. El Camino is an example of riding that fence between entertaining the fans of a television show, but at the same time pushing the characters forwards in a meaningful way. While I may never watch El Camino again, I'm certainly glad I did the first time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.