At some point, the television audience should free Vince Gilligan from the burden of chronicling the criminal underbelly of the American southwest. After all, the Breaking Bad creator cut his teeth in more fantastical realms, writing monsters of the week for The X-Files and doing a preemptive critique of our current age of superhero cinema—the very summer that era took root—with Hancock. The problem is, Gilligan keeps turning up evidence that he should stick around Albuquerque: First by teaming with Peter Gould for a prequel series that renders cartoonish ambulance chaser Saul Goodman a tragic figure on par with (if not better than) Walter White, and now with a sequel film that dares to ask the question “What happened to Jesse Pinkman after he drove through that chain link fence?”
Transformation remains the primary subject of Gilligan’s work in the Breaking Bad-verse, and with El Camino, he’s once more taken the raw materials of unanswered questions and inessential franchise extension and turned them into intoxicatingly potent entertainment. The movie is more of a nail-biting crowd-pleaser than the relationship-based drama of the often-muted Better Call Saul; it’s also much more interested in reversing the polarity of its parent program. As he lays low and cobbles together an escape plan, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) slinks through the shadows of a hometown so impacted by his criminal activities that even his cozy childhood home bears traces of collateral damage wrought by the Heisenberg empire. It’s like time-lapse photography of Breaking Bad’s eggs being unscrambled: One flashy set-piece finds Jesse tearing an apartment apart as if it were the negative image of he and Walt assembling their temporary meth lab in one of Vamanos Pest’s tented houses.
Indelible pictures like this emerge, but El Camino keeps one foot planted in serialized television, another in cinematic one-offs. Of course, the filmmaking on Breaking Bad was plenty ambitious to start with, so it’s not like Gilligan, cinematographer Marshall Adams, and editor Skip Macdonald have great leaps to make in order to elevate their POV shots and whiplash time jumps to the level of something grander. Refreshingly, Gilligan doesn’t try to run away from his TV-writing instincts: Each proceeding stage in Jesse’s high-stakes predicament plays out like its own distinct episode, a further blurring of the lines between media that might’ve been distracting in a bygone era, but is right at home on Netflix. Every “10-hour movie” on the service could learn a thing or two from the way these tautly strung together incidents nudge Jesse into and out of the various traps left for him by his former captors, the authorities, and all the other friends he meets along the way (and in his memories).
And it all depends on that quick-thinking prey. Since the end of Breaking Bad, the actor has been given limited chances to prove that he can do more than Jesse Pinkman (give or take a Todd Chavez), and all it took to do it was… playing Jesse Pinkman again. He’s a force of stunning range in El Camino, beginning the film as a feral time bomb slurping down microwave ramen before unlocking shades of desperation, dejection, arrogance, and acquiescence in all the present-day scenes and flashbacks that follow. He goes long stretches of the film acting and reacting in silence, but the most impressive work he does is in tapping into the version of the character he first played more than a decade ago, the cocky Cap’n Cook-era Jesse who would’ve been killed off were it not for Paul’s onscreen charisma.
Yeah, magnets: Paul holds the whole thing together, the way he dials in with his co-stars new and old. The latter scenario poses the biggest threat to El Camino, the worry that the epilogue will be subsumed with callbacks and reconnections that nudge fans in the ribs more than advance the story. Fortunately, Jesse still has enough allies in Albuquerque that the film can do both, and that maintains the momentum while still delivering the dopamine rush that comes with seeing Paul, Charles Baker, and Matt Jones sharing the screen again. As for those who would wish harm on him: There are large swaths of the film that play as a two-hander between a pair of Jesses—Pinkman and Plemons—seasick sequences in which two powerhouse performers illustrate the differences between Walter White’s erstwhile assistants.
It all comes down to choices: mercies shown and points of no return, probing the soul of the most bruised and battered doormat of TV’s platinum age. Released from Neo-Nazi captivity and no longer under Walt’s thumb, Jesse yearns for freedom—but not enough to kill for it. Racked with PTSD, early scenes wield flashbacks to Jesse’s confinement like blunt objects, but this eventually subsides. Paul makes it apparent that these things will always haunt Jesse, but the character returns to baseline with implausible speed—a sacrifice demanded by the perpetual motion machine of the plot. If El Camino is going to portray this shift like a switch being flipped, at least it comes up with a neat way of visualizing it: Jesse exchanging the yellow heat of a lighter’s flame for a flash light’s cool blue glow.
Windows and doorways hint at escape throughout, but the only pathway to true freedom is through the two-bit hoods still hiding behind various fronts listed in the Albuquerque phone booth. The movie benefits from Gilligan and his team remaining steeped in their TV shows’ seedy ecosystem, which provides continuity between Breaking Bad and El Camino and serves up the majority of its callbacks and cameos, too. It remains the proper setting for this postmodern fusion of American pulp, a fireworks display put together from elements of a western, a crime epic, and a prison-break thriller. The cowboy imagery is a little clumsily deployed—as is one shot where Paul poses behind a set of bars—but there is something awe-inspiring and poignant in the motif of wide shots that depict the cast as tiny specks overwhelmed by desert vistas. Breaking Bad’s central figure wanted to be bigger than that backdrop, a monument to his works that left behind only two vast and trunkless legs of stone. El Camino, meanwhile, is about someone who’s greatest desire is to disappear completely.
The callbacks are ultimately justified, because no matter where El Camino leads, it’s all linked to Jesse’s Breaking Bad arc. The one time Gilligan gilds the vengeance lily, it’s set up for the film’s most inevitable reunion, a stark reminder of the manipulation and underestimation these two hours are meant to propel past. In the movie’s first scene, Jesse is told that he can start over and start fresh—the one thing he can’t do is put things right. El Camino wastes little time correcting past wrongs; any justice delivered is minor and shrouded by the silhouette of a porkpie hat. But that feels more satisfying than any roaring rampage of revenge might’ve been. The road might’ve ended for Jesse Pinkman in the fall of 2013, but El Camino demonstrates that Gilligan and Paul still had a handful of s-curves and hairpin turns left in them.