Watch this as soon as you can…
Six years. Following four seasons of Better Call Saul, Jesse Pinkman is finally back on our screens. He continues to dazzle as the character that made him a household name, and Emmy award winner. No more needs to be said about Aaron Paul’s captivating and moving performance, which stays consistent and strong, even six years later, in this new Netflix film. But does the rest of the film hold up?
This is (nearly) a standalone story set after the events of Breaking Bad. El Camino follows Jesse Pinkman (played as compellingly as always by Aaron Paul) as he tries to escape a police manhunt, and to find the money needed to get his fresh start. There are moments where the film feels self-indulgent, such as when Joe brings up the “magnets” scene from the first episode of Season Five, or some slightly forced, and entirely expected, cameos towards the end. These moments are service for fans of the show, but ultimately hinder El Camino as a standalone piece of film. Also, the scene involving Ed (Robert Foster), the vacuum cleaner shop owner who also runs a witness protection programme for criminals, is not properly explained, and depends too much on the memory of fans of the show. Other than these moments of weakness, the film tells an original story about a criminal looking for his fresh start that even people who have not seen the show will be able to follow. The flashback sequences with Todd explain a lot of what is going on organically, whilst being captivating scenes in their own right. If you are a fan of the show, the returning characters and settings will add to your enjoyment with a cool wave of nostalgia, but El Camino works as a standalone film in its own right, for the most part.
The film is remarkably well told . This is to be expected, given that Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, returns as writer-director for the film. Gilligan proves a master of suspense and tension. Characters are constantly trying to outsmart each other in thrilling, clever and wordy games of chess. The writing is superb so that these scenes can be just as intense as the gun shootouts. Gilligan constantly plays with what the audience knows in comparison to the other characters throughout to build suspense. One minute we believe Jesse has the upperhand because another character cannot see them, then a car will pull up and immediately spin the scene so that Jesse is now the one in danger. Gilligan’s control of audience knowledge is masterful, as he constantly reorientates the story so that what we know is given new context, and even more suspense is added.
Further, the film has two well integrated sub-plots. Transitions between the present, Jesse’s escape, and flashbacks to his time in captivity, are crisply done. Gilligan often uses an object or piece of speech to smoothly bring in a flashback; for example, early in the film, Jesse takes a shower, which forces him to remember the cold, garden hose showers he had during his time as a slave. This is a more obvious example example, but the links between scenes are sometimes, due to the finese and subtlety of Gilligan’s storytelling, quite hard to spot. Sometimes it will be something as organic as Jesse gaining access to a gun, and being given a choice to use it, in two seemingly unconnected scenes. The flashbacks are smoothly joined together. They never feel clunky. The transitions are seamless. This story is extremely well told.
The cinematography plays an essential role in the storytelling. One transition from present to past involves an extreme close-up of Jesse looking through an eye-hole, reminiscent of Psycho and Peeping Tom. One the camera pulls out, we realise we have gone back in time. The cinematography is fantastic throughout. It really is the strongest element of the film. The establishing shots of Albuquerque are stunning and immediately pull you in. Any cinematographer can take a good shot, but only the best can tell a story with the camera. In the scenes involving Todd (Jesse Plemons), you rarely see his face. You only ever see his face through bars, or through car windows. If his face is not blocked, it is a long shot. In comparison, Jesse’s face is constantly in the foreground, perhaps suggesting Jesse still cannot deal with the trauma, inflicted by Todd and his gang, properly. It is subtle touches like this that elevate the film, as it did the show.
El Camino does not feel like essential viewing because the show ended it so perfectly, and the film itself does not reach the quality of some standout episodes from the show, namely “Ozymandias”. However, it is still a fantastic epilogue to the show, which is crafted carefully by a skilled writer-director. Finding the balance between being (mostly) standalone and delivering exciting service for fans of the show, El Camino is worth the six year wait.