25 OUT THERE – EL CAMINO
Harold Bloom the New York literary critic died this week. He was almost ninety years old. Bloom was a fanboy of William Shakespeare and claimed that almost everything in our culture began with the Bard. He neglected amongst others the Mediterranean predecessors. The New York critic was famous for being clever and well-read. He argued that the notion of creative originality was misplaced. Writers and artists have memories that shape what they create, claimed Bloom. Ernest Hemingway said something similar, ‘All writers steal.’
The absence of core originality in the fiction the human race creates is why time has such an impact on our evaluation of the work of writers and filmmakers. The years pass, and what we thought of as original becomes reduced to being a fresh mix of what had already existed. Not everything in Breaking Bad felt fresh or original but there were enough surprises to hook and grip an audience. The initial image of the white trousers floating in the blue sky was a seminal moment for American television. El Camino, the movie based on Breaking Bad, does have a surprise, and it is that in its two hours there is so little that startles.
El Camino is a slight tale, and the ambition behind the project is modest. There are moments, though, when the execution is exquisite enough to remind us of the wit, intelligence, craft and talent that Gilligan and his co-creators brought to Breaking Bad. Jesse stares at a tarantula but director Vince Gilligan waits until Jesse turns around before letting the tarantula move. The delay is nothing more than a detail but it adds mystery. Dirt from the body of Jesse swirls down into the shower drain like the blood in Psycho and confirms without any overt suggestion the degradation that Jesse has suffered before his escape. There is also a fine comic moment when Jesse is explaining persuasively to the great actor Robert Forster why the previous phone call to the police is fake. Behind Jesse the police arrive. These moments may be satisfying to watch but they are not surprises and, apart from the dirt in the water from the shower, are not even revelatory. Elegant they may be but they lack consequence.
El Camino means the road. A better title would have been The Return or La Vuelta although there is no obvious reason why any title should be in Spanish. This is a tale about American white boys. El Camino has a basic and familiar storyline that has been used in god knows how many B Western movies. Well before Vince Gilligan was born the men in Hollywood borrowed the plot of The Count of Monte Christo. At this point, and if Harold Bloom was still alive, he would lift his hands in the air and say that he told us so. In the B Western versions a wrongly condemned hero leaves prison after being swindled out of his ranch. The hero fights the bad guys, establishes his innocence, regains his standing in the community, finds a steadfast but surprisingly well-groomed woman and most important of all reclaims his ranch. At the end of these routine pictures even the horses are happy.
Not all of that happens in El Camino. Jesse has no ranch, horse or cowboy hat, and some of the bad guys are only encountered in flashback. But the missing legacy, the return from prison, the need to avoid the police and a violent confrontation over who should claim the disputed cash are all variations on what happened to the Count of Monte Christo and all his Western imitators. In the opening scenes Jesse even looks like the Count of Monte Christo. Such familiar fare was not what we were expecting from the man who pitched the idea of a schoolteacher becoming a drug making gangster. This is the big surprise within a movie that has so few of them. Instead of a bold new idea or, to respect the memory of Harold Bloom, a fresh variation on a traditional theme, we have a routine if well-made thriller.
Breaking Bad was distinguished by rich characterisation. Relationships were defined by solid characters and the profound bonds of family and work. The characters and their responses to each other drove the twisting plot of Breaking Bad. In El Camino the characters are shoehorned into a second-hand story. The family of Jesse appears, and that helps a little but Mom and Dad exist to facilitate the plot or what Jesse will do next. During a flashback to a conversation between Jesse and Walt, we realise what has been missing from El Camino. Not only is the insecure bravado of Jesse apparent but we observe a man who is difficult to help, someone more concerned with his appetites than valediction. When Walt stares out of the window, we realise that he desired something more than the power, status and vengeance that is routinely listed by his armchair accusers. Walt wants what the American West offered, not just an alternative to suburbia and domesticity but the sanctity of space and silence. This may make Walt selfish but it is not the worst of men who have similar feelings. A movie can have all the cinematic homage and style that the clever can remember and organise but nothing leaves its mark like the nuances of conversation.
Aaron Paul is a gifted and responsible performer. There are moments in El Camino when Paul is given the opportunity to act, and we remember what was an obvious asset to Breaking Bad. But to use the skills of Paul so he can be transformed into Clint Eastwood is unforgivable, especially as Paul has since the end of Breaking Bad put on a few pounds in weight. The baritone voice of Paul is still great but his new round face looks anything but mean. And at the risk of being condemned as a body fascist I have to mention the extra weight of actor Jesse Plemons. As Todd in Breaking Bad, the Texas actor resembled a slimline Matt Damon. The extra pounds or stones have now transformed Plemons into a Philip Seymour Hoffman lookalike. Plemons is entitled to do with his body what he likes but the radical change in his appearance does threaten suspension of disbelief in an audience respecting the chronology defined by a movie. As Harold Bloom said often, all remember and compare. Todd remains a chilling and addictive character, and the scene of him singing along to bland and cheery 60s pop music is simple but bizarre and compelling. The rest of what happens between Jesse and Todd, though, is uninspired.
Compared to the TV series the pace of El Camino feels slow yet both the movie and the TV show proceed at a similar tempo. The difference is that Breaking Bad consisted of 46 minute episodes and El Camino is a two hour movie. A slow pace helped extend in Breaking Bad what after the usual teasers were brief episodes and it added to the pleasure. Over two hours and in a movie the deliberate pacing can feel like a haul. There are other reasons. The absence of fresh characterisation and the reduced scope for interaction between different personalities may have an existential purity but it does not add interest.
The Western theme provides an opportunity for landscape vistas but in El Camino they are pictorial rather than poetic. Instead of a threatening environment we observe Monument Valley substitutes and an early morning and people empty Painted Desert. It is all pleasing to look at but such images can be found in the Google Photos collection of a talented tourist. There are women in El Camino but their roles are limited. The mother of Jesse is interviewed on the television and talks to him on the telephone. Three prostitutes add female flesh and make a small but predictable contribution. Jane reappears and utters a couple of sentences but in one of them she does at least challenge the masculine metaphysical fantasies of Jesse. More women in the cast would have provided additional counterpoint as they did in Breaking Bad. Melissa Bernstein was an important executive producer on El Camino. She should have said something about the obsession with male destiny.
Aaron Paul deserves his success and fame but at least two of his comments about El Camino have been dumb. He claimed he was astonished by the script, astonished perhaps by its minimal approach to plotting and characterisation. Paul promised that the film would allow the character of Jess to say goodbye to Breaking Bad fans. As a farewell, what happens at the end of Breaking Bad is inadequate. The ‘last frontier’ of Alaska may beckon but Jesse is doing what he did at the beginning of El Camino. He is driving a petrol powered vehicle into the middle of nowhere. There is still plenty of road ahead for Jesse just as there was at the end of Breaking Bad. In the future Jesse will have far more difficult challenges than those presented by the lumpen headed wannabee gangsters in El Camino. Jesse still has to understand his nature and plot an existence. Only when that is done can he say goodbye. It will take more than the final sunshine smile of Jesse in El Camino and need a lot more thinking and work by those writing any future scripts. If that sounds harsh and unappreciative of a movie that is always watchable, it is because the opening scene of Breaking Bad and those white trousers raised the stakes for everyone. For that we thank Vince Gilligan but like Jesse we also have an appetite.
Howard Jackson has had nine books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. His latest book Light Work, which is about Jack the Ripper, is available here.