El Camino- A Breaking Bad Movie: Once More, With Feeling

Vince Gilligan, aside from having phenomenal taste in music, is going to go down as one of the preeminent television writer/show runners of all time but, having walked out of El Camino: A Breaking Bad movie, he is still specifically that; a television writer. I don’t want that to seem like a disparagement on any level, far from it but just based on the pacing and structure El Camino doesn’t feel like a film, rather than a coda, a supplement to the original five seasons and there is nothing wrong with that. Television, with respect to Film, is not a lesser medium just a different one, as shows like The Sopranos and The Wire have established. As for any kind of verdict on the final product, it’s exactly what a fan of the show would hope for while feeling closer to the nod-and-wink affection towards its audience that the Deadwood movie smacked of than a stand-alone reinvention that was Serenity to Firefly.

By that I mean it’s much more difficult to transfer a great television show into a good movie than vice versa. Who, as a writer, is the audience? The original fan base? New viewers? Some combination of the two? Vince Gilligan, I believe, is aiming for something else with El Camino and it’s that he’s made something for the cast and crew, for the feeling of family that clearly developed among the principals and the supporting cast. It feels like something out of Kevin Smith’s oeuvre, if that word can be applied to his body of work, like an opportunity to give this incredible cast the chance to say one last great bit of dialogue before exiting stage right.

And do they ever. Again, I am not faulting Gilligan for being a television writer, but damn if he can write. El Camino is replete with cameos of characters gone by and each visit with these characters feels like a visit from a ghost who has some profound wisdoms to share and while I wasn’t rolling my eyes going into them I was trepidatious. It’s easier to step in trite than it is to step in dogshit in my backyard and I never pick up the backyard at my house. Ever. But Gilligan, he lands every single one of these scenes, he lands them with perfect effect and after each one I found myself drifting off in thought, even though the action had started up again. This is unimaginably difficult in a drama where you want that action to continue, usually flashbacks make me want to hit fast forward immediately. Not the case here at all.

I shelled out a months worth of Netflix subscription to trek out and see El Camino in the theaters. Why? Because Vince Gilligan told me to and honestly, he deserves it. But is it required watching on the big screen? I don’t think so. It’s good, very beautiful, his love affair with one of my favorite landscapes, the American Southwest, is still going strong and the cinematography is outstanding but the theater experience is so staggering in scale and scope at this point, thanks to films like Fury Road and Dunkirk, that a little indie darlings don’t quite meet the cut for required viewing. As a memory, sure, very cool and a little surreal seeing some of my favorite television characters on the big screen, but most home setups are going to be perfectly adequate.

A few negatives. The film itself feels both compressed and a bit stretched out. It occurred to me as it started that I really didn’t know what it was going to be about. At all, which is unusual. And it honestly feels like El Camino doesn’t know either until maybe the 45 minute mark. So until then it’s a little bit too detailed, if that makes any sense. To put a finer point on it one of Gilligan’s gifts is his magnificent confidence as a visual storyteller. His ability to communicate a ton of information within a few gestures or frames is what makes Breaking Bad so hypnotic. Nothing goes to waste. No shot is without purpose. But that efficiency is missing in the first act, along with, you know, an antagonist. It somehow also feels like, when it knows where it’s going, it’s in a little bit of a rush to get there and I kind of wish this had been fleshed out as a four part mini-series instead.

Then there is the curse of Gus Fring. As outstanding as the last season of Breaking Bad was, Jack and his gang of Neo-Nazi fuckwits were quite simply underwritten. This is fine, it’s a show about Walt and his family, not a bunch of racist assholes. But after the epic and spectacular clash of wits that was season 4 nothing else really compared. That’s the story here, unfortunately, and the MacGuffin is a little bit small town for the places and heights that this show went to. Also fine, Jesse always was that, it was Walt that attracted spectacular disaster after spectacular disaster.

The question is, does El Camino accomplish what it set out to do and the answer to that is an emphatic yes. Jesse Pinkman fleeing his imprisonment as the cops closed in was a loose thread in an otherwise complete story and the character deserved better than that. Here we have what amounts to an encore, an addendum that fills in some gaps that only the original creator knew were there. It’s a worthy addition to the canon and a charming visitation by the ghost of a beautiful thing, a pop culture darling that somehow came and went on its own terms, on its own time. Vince Gilligan says he is almost certainly done with this Universe, having handed off the reins to Better Call Saul to the extremely capable Peter Gould but should he change his mind or find some inspiration this ghost is welcome back any time.

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