Writer-director Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is driven by a structural perversity. The story—about a man fleeing from the aftermath of the events of the AMC show’s finale—is rife with flashbacks, often resisting to answer the “What happened next?” question that drives most follow-ups. Young meth-cooker Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) was last seen at the end of Breaking Bad driving a stolen El Camino into the desert darkness, hysterical after escaping imprisonment and torture at the hands of white supremacists, whom his partner, Walter White, ultimately killed. We last saw Jesse in a sort of propulsive extremis, which one assumes might bleed into a sequel, but Gilligan conjures in El Camino a rueful tone that bears more of a resemblance to the recent seasons of Better Call Saul than to Breaking Bad. Before Jesse can move on to the next stage in his life, he must reckon with the abuse he’s just fled, with the wreck his life has become.
El Camino mixes a self-help message with moments of hard, cruel detail. Gilligan hasn’t lost his talent for narrative invention, especially for rendering subterranean criminal worlds hidden in plain sight. One of Breaking Bad’s most chillingly casual, self-rationalizing henchman, Todd (Jesse Plemons), returns in flashbacks, and is revealed to have acted as a kind of gaslighting partner to Jesse, offering him breadcrumbs of kindness in order to use him to carry out side errands. In the present, Jesse is on the run, trading the El Camino for a friend’s car, staking out Todd’s now abandoned apartment, which he knows contains a large stash of cash. Jesse has this information because he helped Todd remove the corpse of a housekeeper that the latter killed. Todd views this disposal as just another errand, and Jesse drops the body from several floors up like a bundle of laundry. In an especially macabre flourish, Todd removes his belt from the dead woman’s neck and re-loops it into his pants.
Of all the Breaking Bad characters who briefly return in El Camino, Todd seems to stimulate Gilligan’s imagination most. He suggests a modernization of a Donald Westlake character—a thug who’s selfish and intelligent enough to wall himself off from the implications of his actions. Gilligan goes to town finding various ways to express Todd’s callousness, which Plemons plays with extraordinary understatement. When Jesse finds a gun and briefly toys with escaping from Todd, the latter’s understanding of his own power and entitlement is truly unnerving. Todd says, “I’ll have that gun now, Jesse,” with condescension, and, more audaciously, with something resembling actual pity.
Gilligan’s aesthetic also appears to be influenced by Westlake, as El Camino has a crisp, streamlined, matter-of-fact sense of framing that suggests the pared-down prose of the legendary crime writer, while recalling the confident visual style that Breaking Bad grew into and that Better Call Saul inherited. There’s also a bit of Twin Peaks, and Breaking Bad itself, in Gilligan’s chronological hopscotching, which shifts one’s focus from the plot at large to individual scenes. El Camino is ultimately concerned with a simple narrative thread: Jesse’s attempt to find the money to pay Ed (Robert Forster) to help him disappear into a kind of witness protection program for criminals. Jesse could’ve went with Ed in Breaking Bad and didn’t, and so El Camino often suggests a long act of atoning for one essential failure of self-preservation, as Jesse remembers pivotal details from his past to pry himself free from his current predicament. Forster, in his final role, is a master of the implicitly emotionally charged deadpan that Gilligan’s characters use to protect themselves and to launder atrocity.
Yet Gilligan somewhat outsmarts himself in El Camino. For all the film’s invention, for all its trickiness, it doesn’t really move. Jesse isn’t an interesting enough character to connect the film’s various tangents; he’s certainly not a Walter White or a Saul Goodman, criminals who dare the audience to like them via the visceral nature of their inventiveness and need to succeed and dominate. Audiences who’re “Team Jesse” will probably enjoy El Camino more than those who always found him to be somewhat tedious—a youth-flattering character who’s divorced of complicity from the plot of which he’s a part. Gilligan’s love for Jesse doesn’t do the protagonist any favors either, as El Camino is composed of a series of riffs in which he’s continually upstaged by characters who’re allowed to be true to their maliciousness. Breaking Bad ended with Jesse discovering himself in chaos, El Camino reins him back in.
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