“Let The Right One In” did not need a remake. The 2008 Swedish film was a brilliant atmospheric piece of cinema, and I find it endlessly frustrating when American audiences can’t embrace foreign movies more often. Do subtitles really have to be an impediment when they come across so much better than dopey English dubbing?
Regardless, its American remake “Let Me In” turns out to be a big surprise. Just when I was convinced Hollywood studios would simply dumb the story down to attract a youthful demographic, Matt Reeves’ take on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel, which in turn inspired Tomas Alfredson’s movie, is amazingly respectful to its source material. Moreover, you can see throughout how the story deeply affected Reeves and how he personalized the actions of the characters on screen.
The story remains the same, but the characters’ names have been changed to protect the original. The setting has been moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico which, amazingly enough, appears to be as snowy as Sweden. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is President of the United States, talking about the “evil empire” on television. The advantage of this film being set in the 1980’s, however, is that the characters don’t have to worry about not getting any cell phone reception because they don’t own cell phones. This makes it especially lucky for the filmmakers because they won’t have to make any stupid excuses for cell phones not working.
Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a 12-year-old boy who lives with his alcoholic mother (we never get a clear view of her face) and has no real friends to speak of. At school, he is constantly harassed by bullies who thoughtlessly subject him to even more humiliating tortures than what Oskar dealt with in “Let The Right One In.” Eventually, he comes in contact with Abby (Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl who looks to be around his age, who has moved into his apartment building next door to him. Although she tells Owen they can’t be friends, a strong bond soon forms once he gives her his Rubik’s Cube to play with. She ends up solving it in a way which doesn’t involve cheating. My brother would have just taken the stickers off the cube and put them back on with the colors altogether.
I really do mean it when I say the humiliations Owen endures here are even worse than what Oskar went through to where I came out of this remake believing Oskar had it easy. Reeves, who has directed “Cloverfield,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “War of the Planet of the Apes,” really captures how kids can be utterly cruel to one another, and it will bring back memories for those of us who were humiliated in ways which left a wealth of psychological scars. Seeing him practice his revenge on the bullies all by his lonesome makes made me sadder as what we imagine doesn’t always jive with reality. While the kids at times put up a tough façade, their vulnerability is clearly evident in their eyes.
As the movie goes on, the fact Abby is a vampire, or a bloodsucker if you want to call her that, becomes a side issue. She and Owen are just two kids, one whom is older than they appear, who are struggling through the painful awkwardness of growing up. When they come in contact, they for once have someone they can relate to. Both Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are perfectly cast, and each has moments where their faces say more than words ever could.
McPhee previously starred in for “The Road” where he played Viggo Mortensen’s’ son, and he inhabits Owen with all the isolation and helplessness the role has to offer. Chloë Grace Moretz did this after her amazing breakout performance in “Kick Ass,” and as Abby shows a strong maturity beyond her years. But I really have to applaud the adult actors who, while they don’t have as much screen time as their younger colleagues, give depth to characters that could have just been simple clichés. Richard Jenkins, still one of the most dependable character actors, plays Abby’s guardian, Thomas. Through his scenes with Moretz, he shows a caring man whose relationship with this girl has lasted longer than we could ever imagine. Jenkins makes us sympathize with this man even as he commits horrible acts for the sake of Abby’s survival. When we first meet Thomas, he has become wearier with the passing of time and the dark deeds which have weigh heavy on his soul.
Equally impressive is Elias Koteas who plays a police detective whose name never gets mentioned. The beauty of his acting here is how incredibly subtle he is to where he fully inhabits his character with what seems like relative ease. This could just have been the typical policeman whom the audience is manipulated into despising, doing all the stupid things cops do in movies. But Koteas instead gives the character a deep humanity to where you respect him even as you fear what he will do this Romeo & Juliet couple in the making. This is just a regular guy doing his job, and this makes his eventual fate all the more tragic.
“Let Me In” is not your typical jump-out-of-your-seat horror movie. There are a few jump scares, but the horror comes out of what cruelty people are subjected to, be it on the playground or anywhere else in town where you get your blood drained (and not by the Red Cross mind you). It also comes from where the line between what’s right and wrong becomes blurred as we ask ourselves if we can pull away from the people we love so much just to set things straight. What would we give up in the process?
As an American remake of a foreign film, I figured Hollywood would just change the story to where the good guys get the bad guys and justice wins out in the end. You know, the typical kind of plot designed to make us all feel good. To my astonishment, Reeves never veers in that direction once, and he has made a film whose climax is left up to the viewer to interpret. Nothing is ever easily spelled out for the audience, and I admired him for staying true to the source material.
If there is a drawback to “Let Me In,” it’s that in being respectful to “Let The Right One In,” not much has changed. For those who loved the 2008 movie as much as I did, there is much to admire but few surprises to be had. Many of the situations remain the same as before while certain characters in the background get more or less depth than they previously did. And there is all that snow like before, but it looks very beautiful and it’s a character of sorts in this movie. While Reeves doesn’t break new ground with this interpretation, we can see how deeply he relates to Lindqvist’s novel and its characters. In the end, “Let Me In”’ is not a vampire movie as much as it is one about childhood and how rocky a road it is for some more than others, especially for those who don’t grow old. It’s Reeves’ depth of feeling which informs this film, and it gives this remake a power I never expected it to have.
Oh yeah, there is 1980’s music to be heard throughout, but I kind of wished they put some more of it in here. I still love listening to music from that crazy decade, and it would have been cool to see some bloodletting done to the music of REO Speedwagon, Hall & Oates, or even Journey. How about something by Air Supply or Chicago? Oh well…
Even though we are still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, there are still new movies arriving to us in theaters (those which are open anyway) and/or to our own television screens thanks to On Demand and various digital platforms. One such movie is “Wander,” a thriller starring Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight”) as Arthur Bretnik, a private investigator who live in a rusty old trailer out in the middle of nowhere. We soon learn he is still grieving the loss of his daughter who was killed in a horrific car accident which left his wife completely catatonic. The perpetrators of this accident were never found, and he remains determined to find them.
One day, he is met by a woman who pays him to look into the death of her daughter who also looks to have been killed in a car accident, but the mother is not convinced this was the case. In the process, he uncovers a conspiracy which links to other cases of people killed in a similar fashion as well as to his daughter’s death, and he becomes infinitely determined to uncover it for all to see. But with his troubled past and a history of mental illness, one has to wonder if Arthur is really seeing the truth out there, or if his mind is playing tricks on him. “Wander” also stars Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham and Katheryn Winnick.
Directing “Wander” is April Mullen, a highly creative Anishinaabe Algonquin (Indigenous) filmmaker who is known for her passion, her bold visuals, and an ambitious shooting style which is truly amazing. With “Dead Before Dawn 3D,” she became the first woman and the youngest person to direct a live action stereoscopic 3D feature film, and it was awarded the Perron Award for its technological achievement. Her other directorial efforts include the erotic romantic drama “Below Her Mouth” which she filmed with an all-female production crew, and the action thriller “88” which stars Katharine Isabelle and Christopher Lloyd.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk with April Mullen about “Wander” recently, and in her director’s statement, she described the film as being a journey towards a truth unseen by most, and one hard to face. In addition, she also sees it as a critique of sanctioned government surveillance which has led to the displacement of many indigenous people through no fault of their own. We talked about this and more in our interview below.
April Mullen: Are you the marathoner runner himself, or did somebody else run a marathon?
Ben Kenber: (Laughs) I am indeed the marathon runner. I have run the full Los Angeles Marathon (26.2 miles) eight years in a row.
AM: Awesome! I just had to ask. I just looked at the (website) byline (“Cinematic Musings from a Movie Lover and Marathon Runner”) and I loved it. I looked at your website and I was like, this is wicked!
BK: I did not run the LA Marathon this year, but I am hoping to come back to it once this coronavirus pandemic has finally ended.
AM: You better because it pumps me up.
BK: Thank you. “Wander” really held my attention to the very end. This is always tricky to pull off especially with one like this which deliberately messes with your mind. When were you first introduced to the screenplay by Tim Doiron?
AM: Tim Doiron and I go way back. We started working and making independent films together 20 years ago. We come together and we’re like, what do we want to make next? That’s a very messy and exciting day. Five years ago, we wanted to create something with a main character who was really dealing with grief, loss, mental health issues and a huge amount of paranoia when it comes to conspiracies and government surveillance and anxiety, and of how to over come that. And then we thought, how are we going to bring that truth and that character to a world that’s commercial and viable for the entertainment industry (laughs). The backdrop was the conspiracy, the podcast, the chip technology, border control and my inner side of the truth; that indigenous women, 2Spirited warriors, BIPOC and displaced people have always been a continual target and victim of governmental subjugation and violent practices. (We went about) exposing that in a tight narrative through the eyes of one single character which is an unreliable narrator like Arthur. So, all of those themes became our mixing pot and then the rest is history, but it wasn’t as easy or smooth as we originally thought. We were like, this movie is going to be very straight forward, but of course it is so much more complex than we had hoped. But hey, we made a movie and that’s what it’s about (laughs).
BK: Exactly. Aaron Eckhart is terrific here. He has to run a gamut of being in a state of grief, but he is also a bit crazy as well. Did you and Aaron had to measure out crazy and grief-stricken he had to look throughout shooting?
AM: We had an unbelievable working relationship. We were attached at the hip. We could communicate through our eyes and even our physicality on set. I was never far away. I was maybe three feet away from him. He was on set every day, every second and in every frame of the movie. He brought 150% and was beyond dedicated. I think this role was so different and far removed from anything else he has ever played. When he read the script, he completely resonated with Arthur. Aaron himself is totally into conspiracies, podcasts and the dark web. He always said, if you’re not paranoid, you should be. We were riffing on conspiracies and chem trails. It was unbelievable how much material resonated with him. He came from a really strong place of truth, and then Tim’s experience with mental health issues also rang from a place of truth. So, my job was just to make all of those things come together and make Aaron feel really comfortable to take major leaps and capture that lightning in a bottle that he has. We went off script and we went off locations. Sometimes it would just be him and I. He would be in a car and I would be operating the camera. We were able to do that because the film was so small, but I knew Aaron Eckhart if that makes sense.
BK: “Wander” is kind of a mind-bending movie in the same the way movies like “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Memento” and “The Sixth Sense” were.
AM: Very much. It’s very much like a current version of “Jacob’s Ladder.” I feel like it is the 2020 version of “Jacob’s Ladder” (laughs). At least, I hope it is. We really hope it is.
BK: You have said “Wander” was created in honor of all Indigenous, black and other people who are targeted and have been displaced through border control on stolen land. Do you this is what helps to set the film apart from others of its kind like “Jacob’s Ladder?”
AM: I’m not sure. I hope so. In the statement (at the film’s beginning), there is so much truth to that. We did a lot of research with MK-Ultra and who were the victims of that and of who did the government use to test different technologies on people, and it was mortifying. In our history, what we have done to people made a huge impact on us, and we had to say something at the beginning of the film because it’s not just a fictional world although we both wish it was different. This is the world that has happened in the past and we didn’t want to ignore it, but we didn’t want to heavy-hand it either. But we just thought it was so important to recognize the truth of what has happened, and it is terrifying to think we are constantly being tested and watched. Chip technology is right around the corner (laughs). Five years ago, it felt a little bit further away, but today… What we assumed five years ago, “Wander” is way more current than we ever dreamt it would be.
BK: In the film’s opening statement, it says “Wander” was filmed on the homelands of the Pueblo Navajo and Apache peoples. What effect would you say this had on the entire production?
AM: It had a huge effect. Our very first day, we opened with a ceremony recognizing the land with an indigenous family and clan from New Mexico, very close to Carrizozo, and that set the tone of what we were about to embark on. And as a creative person, and I’m also Anishinaabe Algonquin, I just thought that to start off with the recognition of the land that is not our own and that’s where we began, I really hoped to allow for truth, vulnerability and a humbling of everyone to know our goal as a creative group of being a silent warrior; shedding a light on these subject matters whatever they might be. This one in particular was Arthur’s journey, but at the end of the day we are all creating something that we hope makes an impact and propels change. Whether you’re a grip or costumes, I just thought coming together as a group and really allowing that to begin on the right foot was important, and then every day afterwards was the same. And then on a personal note, I don’t know if you noticed, but the music throughout the film was really specific and really original and different I think than any normal psychological thriller. That was a very strong intention to collaborate with an indigenous artist out of Canada whose name is Jeremy Dutcher, and I really wanted to put indigenous language in the film to bring medicine and healing through the Ancestors’ songs on the harsh reality of what our past and our history was. Just hearing that and feeling that, whether we understand it or not, I think our spirits are ideally healing through song and language, and that was a personal goal as well in making the film.
BK: The opening shot of “Wander” is brilliantly shot in how the camera comes up to the scene of a car accident and then pulls away from it to suddenly go up into a crane shot. How did you pull this off?
AM: You are the first person to mention this, and I have to say I loved that you did because no one has! That shot was so, so ambitious. There was only four of us. It was a (camera) operator who I have worked with on three films on the Steadicam who was rigged on the back of one of our production vans. My father was driving backwards (laughs) along a deserted road which we had full safety on each side which then came to a stop. The camera operator came up to and circled that space that you saw. He designed, which we brought from Canada to Carrizozo, a walk on/off platform which I am obsessed with. It’s used in the film a dozen times. He was able to take the Steadicam and do a walk on crane shot. It’s independent film so we have to do these things. He at the end walks backward onto a platform after which a crane lifts him up. He’s actually standing on the crane that he made a platform for, and it is all in one shot. I wanted it to be at sunrise so our window was very small. We practiced about three runs to get the timing of the lines of the road correct, and I really wanted it to be shot in one shot and not digitally faked. We shot it four times and then we got it on the second take. I’m really proud of that because it is an amazing achievement for a small crew with a small budget and being innovative together out in Carrizozo, New Mexico. We had very little resources. We built that shot with a hammer and screws (laughs).
BK: I imagine the budget on this production was very tight.
AM: Super tight. Too tight.
BK: How much time to shoot “Wander” in?
AM: 20 days, but our below the line budget was very puny because we had these incredible stars in the film, which is okay because that’s what we need for people to be able to see the film. But it really tightens the clasps on everything else. It was puny, very puny (laughs).
BK: Speaking of the cast, you have a great set of actors on display here. In addition to Aaron Eckhart, you also have Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham and Katheryn Winnick among others. How much direction did you have to give these actors, or did you simply leave them to their own talents?
AM: As a director I am very, very hands on, so I am always within arm’s length of them and am trying to challenge them and steer them in new directions. I think Aaron, Tommy, Heather and Kathryn are all playing roles that they are not stereotypically cast for. Heather Graham was the grounded best friend and the tether to reality for Arthur. She was not a romantic love interest. She was the voice of reason for the audience. That is something very challenging and new for her, coming up with ways in making sure she was really grounded. She loved it, I loved it and we were both up for the challenge. Tommy Lee, he doesn’t usually doesn’t get to play an eccentric, fun loving (at least on the surface), Hawaiian shirt wearing, whatever goes kind of guy. It is very different for him. There were a lot of questions and bod language and how to say certain things. We were always, always communicating and it was unbelievable work because it was such a small set and a small cast in a lot of ways. There was a lot of one on one time which was fortunate and really wonderful.
BK: Katheryn Winnick’s character always stands out in an interesting way in this film, and this is especially apparent in the first shot. Was that by your design or Katheryn’s?
AM: It was written in the script, but we also worked on the script months before she got to Carrizozo. I love that she comes prepared. We were revamping and reworking the script to cater to her and her strengths, and what she thought was more intelligent or higher stakes for her character which was fantastic. That was really unique how she brought that as a performer. When she got there, she was unbelievable. She came onto set, it was her first day, and it was the shot where she has to jump out of a window and Aaron catches her and they start running, and it is the intro where she takes off her mask. As she was coming out of the trailer, I was like, Katheryn, we have 20 minutes, the sun is setting, it’s a one-take wonder because it has to happen at magic hour. Once again, trying to way too ambitious for what I have (laughs). So I said, Kathryn, I have your stunt double here, but then I would have to cut for the lines. What do you feel? And she was like, “I’m down, I’m ready, let’s get dirty!” As big and as Hollywood as she is, she was ready to get dirty and gritty for the role because that role is undone in a lot of ways because her character carries with her a lot of weight. She is manipulating all of the puzzle pieces which is pretty cool to find out at the end. She was just such a team player and she didn’t even practice. She was like, let’s do it. I was like, are you sure about the window? Are you sure you’re gonna go through it? Are you okay? She says, “done. I’m ready.” We did it twice, she nailed it twice, Aaron caught her twice doing somersaults out of a window, both of them did their own stunts and it was unreal (laughs), and that was day one on set! They trusted each other, they trusted us, they trusted me and it was an awesome moment of just jumping off a platform and creating magic together. It was awesome.
BK: That’s one hell of a first day.
AM: Can you believe that? I know! Unbelievable.
BK: The look of this film is fantastic. How much of it is due to you, and how much of it is the result of your cinematographers, Gavin Smith and Russ De Jong?
AM: It was a huge collaboration from the beginning. Tim Doiron, the producing partner and I landed in New Mexico six months prior to shooting. We lived in Carrizozo, that little town, in those tiny motels for four months. We were isolated from reality just like Arthur which was super inspiring, and Gavin and I were coming up with that beautiful projection and trying to be innovative with the small budget and small locations we had and really branching out to try and make the film feel much bigger than what it was. I’m obsessed with every detail, every moment and every little piece of color, light, production value and design that you see onscreen. Every little detail, I wish I could say it happened by accident and that we sneezed and there it was, but it is meticulously planned (laughs). I hope it feels real. I just wanted it to feel like real life, but it was definitely very much planned including the times of day when we shot. I really wanted to take advantage of those gorgeous landscape shots and the sun setting shots. That required teamwork with the DP and also out first assistant director and our production designer, my sister Faye Mullen, and me and everybody coming together to really try and achieve what we needed to on a tight timeframe. But the look was heavily established beforehand. I started taking pictures and photographs the minute we started writing. Five years ago, I was collecting a look book for “Wander” that I brought to the DPs who I have worked with before on several projects so we had a shorthand. We just wanted to make it our best work, so we challenged each other every day than we ever made it before which is a good thing.
BK: That lightning bolt in one shot, that was real?
AM: Oh yeah it was. Nothing is effects except for the little chip. Everything is real. Every sunset, every lightning bolt, all of that is just real and I’m so proud of that.
BK: Thank you for your time April.
AM: Thank you for supporting “Wander.” Have a great day and keep running!
“Wander” will be released in theaters (whichever ones are open), On Demand and on Digital starting December 4, 2020. Please be sure to check out the trailer below.Poster and photos courtesy of Saban Films.
I am thankful I live near New Beverly Cinema as it has long since proven to be a great film school for movie buffs like me, and it has allowed me to watch movies I might otherwise not have bothered to watch when they were first released. Case in point is the 1995 movie “Safe” which marked a huge breakthrough for its director Todd Haynes and lead actress Julianne Moore. I do remember when it was first released and of film critics like Roger Ebert singing its praises, and it came out during a time when movies like these played in cities far from where I lived, and getting out to see them was impossible. Even with a driver’s license, certain cinematic events were too far away for me to attend.
Anyway, Moore plays Carol White, a suburban homemaker who is comfortably married to Greg (Xander Berkeley), and she spends her days either doing things around the house, going to her local aerobics class, or having lunch with friends. But one day after driving down Olympic Boulevard, she finds herself coughing uncontrollably after traveling behind a big rig truck whose exhaust seeps right into her air conditioning system. This marks the beginning of an acute sensitivity to just about every chemical known to the human race, and things just get worse and worse for her from there. In addition to coughing uncontrollably, she later finds herself suffering from nose bleeds, she develops asthma-like symptoms, and she ends up convulsing at the local dry cleaners.
Carol is said to have developed multiple chemical sensitivity, otherwise known as MCS or the “Twentieth-Century Disease.” This is still seen as a very controversial diagnosis which remains unrecognized by the American Medical Association. “Safe,” however, is not out to prove if MCS is a real threat to us all or not. Instead, it looks at how a disease can forever change the way we look at ourselves and of how we view the world around us.
“Safe” also gets deep into that anxiety-ridden place in our psyche which goes haywire when our safety zone gets violated by forces beyond our control. We feel Carol’s agony throughout because we all collectively fear getting a disease which has no clear diagnosis or an immediate cure. When you end up going through lord only knows how many doctor’s appointments where it feels like nothing’s working, it really wears you and your loved ones down to the point of sheer desperation.
Things get even more horrifying from there when Carol travels to a resort in the New Mexico desert called Wrenwood. Designed to help those afflicted with MCS, it really seems more like a cult. Instead of finding ways to deal with this condition to where people can function normally in their daily lives, its leader Peter Dunning (the excellent Peter Friedman) subtly enforces his fear of the chemical world on his dutiful followers. Peter comes in the guise of a very friendly person with the best of intentions, but we all know where good intentions lead.
Haynes, working with a minimal budget, makes “Safe” feel all the more real as he portrays suburban life in the San Fernando Valley in ways which never come across as corny or the least bit campy. All the characters are complex and the kind we recognize from our own lives, and the agitation they experience feels unnervingly vivid. Adding to this sense of dread is an excellent ambient score by Ed Tomney which deftly illustrates the growing anxiety of the film’s main character. Haynes brings out the best in each of the actors, and he lets them become their characters instead of just playing them.
Moore’s performance in “Safe” proved to be a revelation as she sucks us right into her character’s dilemma, and we can never take our eyes off her as Carol turns further inward and isolates herself from the world at large. The whole movie rests on her shoulders, and she shows no vanity in her portrayal of Carol. She literally becomes the character before our very eyes to where she looks frighteningly emaciated and close to being completely incapacitated. It’s a deeply affecting performance which made me want to reach out and hug her, and I say this even though it would probably not be enough to save her character.
“Safe” ends on an ambiguous note, leaving it up to the audience to guess what will become of Carol White. This will drive a lot of the mainstream audience members crazy as they demand to have things explained in full detail, but a movie like this cannot and should not offer easy solutions. How can it? I got so caught up in Carol’s ordeal to where I felt I was in her shoes. Personally, I hope she finds a way to overcome her circumstances, but that may just be wishful thinking.
I am really glad I finally got to see “Safe,” and I hope more people take the time to check it out. It stays with you in a way few movies do. It also leaves us with a haunting image of a certain character seen from a distance, completely covered with clothing to where they are hiding every part of their body from the world at large. Arcade Fire may sing about the body being a cage, but what happens when we put another cage over it? This all reminds me of a lyric from a song by Peter Gabriel:
“The more we are protected, the more we’re trapped within.”
* * * * out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: When I first saw “Safe” at New Beverly Cinema, it had been out of print on DVD and VHS for several years. The Criterion Collection, however, has since released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray, and I could not recommend it more highly. Click here to find out more about this special edition.
What life has taught me is that doing a series finale to an acclaimed television show, let alone any television show, can be a truly thankless task. Wrapping up everything in a nice bow after years of following a group of characters throughout their lives typically leaves fans infinitely frustrated as they always expect something far more epic than they are given. Seriously, just ask the fans of “Game of Thrones” and “Dexter,” as the utter disappointment from those finales remains never ending. With “Breaking Bad,” however, Vince Gilligan managed to wrap up Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) criminal saga in a way which seemed perfect and totally fulfilling to everyone. No need to go any further with the story, right?
Well, Gilligan has continued to tap into the “Breaking Bad” well with “Better Call Saul” which started off as a prequel, but which may eventually turn into a sequel. And now Netflix has just dropped “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” which follows the show’s other main character, Jesse Pinkman, who is once again played by Aaron Paul. It turns out there is a bit more story than what we were led to believe, and while the end result might seem unnecessary to some, it results in an exciting motion picture which proves to be as good as the average “Breaking Bad” episode.
“El Camino” starts at the exact point “Breaking Bad” ended, with Jesse driving like hell in the car this movie takes its title from. While reveling in having escaped from his cruel and sadistic Neo-Nazi captors, he also realizes he is not out of the woods just yet as the police are looking for him here, there and everywhere. After meeting up with his friends Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones) to get some rest and gather his thoughts, he plots his next move which will hopefully lead him away from the long arm of the law.
The movie’s opening scene serves as a flashback to what is about to transpire, and it sets down the gauntlet Jesse wonders if he can pull off. During a friendly conversation with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Jesse asks him where he will go once he gets out of the drug dealing business. Mike says he will go to Alaska as he sees it as “the final frontier” and a place where one can do anything. Jesse sees the appeal to Mike’s plan, but he also wonders if he can get out of the drug game and manage to make things right for those he has hurt or wronged. Mike tells him he can never make things right, but with this scene, Gilligan leaves us wondering if Jesse can do both as the look on his face shows a wealth of guilt which needs to be dealt with.
There have been countless movies which deal with characters who are caught up in the drug trade and looking to retire from it, or they are trying to atone for a brutal past which continues to hover over them despite their best efforts to go straight. The ones which quickly come to mind include “Carlito’s Way” and “Light Sleeper,” and those two had their main characters facing consequences which karma was not done with them yet. Gilligan plays around with our knowledge of these movies as we wonder if Jesse will ever be able to escape his crimes and atone for them in some way, or if karma has something in store for him which he cannot see coming.
Having a “Breaking Bad” movie centered around Jesse Pinkman feels more than appropriate as Paul has proven to be every bit the actor Cranston had been on the show. Jesse was not even supposed to survive the first season, and it is a testament to Paul’s portrayal that he made it all the way to the end as he gave us a character who was not necessarily a bad person, but one who had made foolish decisions in life and was now being thrust into devilish situations he never intended to get into. When we meet up with Jesse again in “El Camino,” he is a broken man, picking up the pieces of a life which has been forever shattered while living in fear of being apprehended by the law. And in today’s technologically driven society, one can only hide from the law for so long, if at all.
Paul is outstanding as always as he continues to take Jesse from one extreme to the next. His attempts to escape his scary predicament result in him enduring a tremendous level of unease and anxiety as he puts in Jesse’s shoes to where we feel as helpless as he does. The world is on his tail, and one can only be so lucky in escaping their past deeds. Paul is superb in portraying Jesse’s mindset without ever having to overdo it, and his performance is another example of an actor who inhabits their character instead of acting it.
Gilligan returns to write and direct “El Camino,” and he has melded it into a non-linear journey as it shifts from past to present. What results adds more weight to what we have already seen previously, and it makes Jesse’s predicament all the rawer and more unsettling. He also reminds you of how, when it comes to “Breaking Bad,” you need to expect the unexpected. The show was always about playing with your expectations to where you had no idea of what would come next. This movie keeps this tradition going as Jesse tries various methods to make it out of New Mexico in one piece even as some nasty road bumps are constantly being placed in his path.
Now I am writing this review of “El Camino” some time after its release, so many of you may already know about the various cameos by “Breaking Bad” characters who appear here. All the same, I will not spoil any of them for you as audiences deserve to discover them on their own. Still, I have to point out the one made by Robert Forster as the actor, in a sad and cruel irony, passed away on the day this movie was released. Forster returns as Ed Galbraith, the vacuum cleaner salesman who also relocates people who are running from the law and gives them new identities, and his performance is a reminder of what a priceless character actor he was. His inscrutable poker face shows how close Ed keeps his cards to his chest as he is not about to expose himself to outsiders. Forster was always great at taking every character he ever played and gave them an added dimension which may or may not have been in the screenplay. The same goes with his performance here as he shows Ed to have just a bit of vulnerability in him to give the character a conscience we were never sure he had.
Does Jesse escape his fate and make things right? Well, “El Camino” keeps you wondering about this all the way up to its closing credits, and it proves to be an engrossing ride for “Breaking Bad” fans who still get enough of what Gilligan has up in that head of his. While seeing Jesse burn rubber in the series finale as he escaped his imprisonment served as an excellent end for the character, there were still many who wondered where he could have gone from there. Whether or not you believe “El Camino” ranks alongside “Breaking Bad’s” best episodes, it is a thrilling ride which kept me engaged right to its final moments, and it is a fitting epilogue for a character who proved to be more complex than we initially realized.