Review: 'El Camino'

The 'Breaking Bad' sequel gives Jesse Pinkman the sendoff he deserves
BREAKING AWAY: Jesse Pinkman gets free and seeks his freedom in 'El Camino,' now on Netflix.

This weekend, millions who watched El Camino had a strange experience; they learned of Robert Forster's death just minutes after seeing the actor repeat his Breaking Bad role as a man who makes people disappear.

Forster's Ed Galbraith runs a vacuum cleaner store in Albuquerque. It's an oversized space that's staged to make this medium-statured man look smaller and lonelier. He's chatting with a little old lady customer who doesn't want to ditch her loyal broken vacuum cleaner. "Why can't they build things that last anymore?" she complains. He replies, "Ah, you're singing my song."

His next customer: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is a scarfaced fugitive with a huge sack full of money. The young desperado tries to force the system of references and secret passwords Ed uses as a firewall between his front and his real work: giving aliases and new lives to criminals on the run. Even in the face of stacks of cash, Ed stands his ground, to teach a kid a lesson.

This actor was built to last. Forster is best known for a similar character: the rueful South LA bail bondsman Max Cherry, from Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown. Forster did good movies as well as wretched ones, and took corporate pep talk gigs for hire when job offers dwindled. With most actors, you can tell whose silhouette they fill—who would have acted their kind of roles 50 years previously. Jesse Plemons, who plays the calf-faced psycho Todd in El Camino, is superb in a part that Rod Steiger would have nailed in 1964. There's no clear parallel to Forster's particular ability to embody a human problem: the matter of integrity, what it costs, and what its worth.

Breaking Bad, to which El Camino was a sequel, was a story about for-profit medicine. As they say, the Canadian version would have been one episode long. But it was also a critique of the way some of our tunnel-visioned dads worked, as perfectionists who never considered the end results. At the end of this trail, the meth-baron Walter White (Bryan Cranston) was beaming with fatherly pride at the kind of beautiful stainless steel machinery that he had used to pump out death out by the bindlefull.

His star pupil, Jesse, was last seen in the Breaking Bad finale in September 2013, roaring with ecstasy at his freedom. That's where we begin. His first stop is the welcoming home of beloved knuckleheads Badger (Matthew Lee Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker)—note the goofs have squandered their crime earnings on a pair of full-size replica USS Enterprise chairs. Next stop is to toss the apartment of the newly dead Todd (Plemons) to try to find the money he stashed.

Jesse Pinkman was a slave laborer for Todd and other Aryan thugs, tortured and kept in an open pit. LIke most PTSD cases, Jesse is unable to stay on the present tense; and he's riddled with flashbacks about one particularly bad weekend in captivity: "Guess what, we're all alone… it's just the two of us," Todd says from the rim of the pit. For a while you're afraid Todd is going to complete the humiliation of Jesse, the way it's done in prison. Actually, it's almost worse. Forced to help clean up after a mess Todd made, Jesse is made to understand how completely broken he's been by captivity.

The memories are unbidden, but he can't dwell on them when there's an apartment to search: In a ceiling shot in time lapse, we see a half-dozen little Jesses scrabbling in every different room, chopping walls and ripping floors.

El Camino is slightly unfixed in time. The Wild West peeks out of the sunbelt sprawl. This same movie that has Jesse crunching burner phones in his hands also has him ripping out some Yellow Pages to help find his way. Who does that now? This is tense and authentically tough, but not on its own wavelength, like David Lynch's brilliant sidebar to Twin Peaks, Fire Walk With Me.

El Camino doesn't stand alone.

However, it does reunite those two fascinating figures, mentor and student. In flashback, at a coffee shop, White once again fails to note the intelligence beneath Jesse Pinkman's pinkboy gangsta affectations—a personal style that hadn't yet faced a margin call, as it does here.

El Camino
UR; 122 Mins.

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