The millions who watched El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie when it premiered on Netflix on Oct. 11 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 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 is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a scar-faced 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 the kid a lesson.
This actor was built to last. Forster is best known for a similar character: the rueful, South L.A. bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. Forster acted in 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 is 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, meth-baron Walter White (Bryan Cranston) beamed with fatherly pride at the beautiful, stainless steel machinery he used to pump out death by the bindle-full.
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 (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker)—note the goofs 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 in the present; and is riddled with flashbacks about one particularly bad weekend in captivity.
El Camino is slightly unfixed in time. The Wild West peeks out of the Sunbelt sprawl. This 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 a flashback, at a coffee shop, White once again fails to note the intelligence beneath Jesse Pinkman’s gangsta affectations—a personal style that hadn’t yet faced a margin call, as it does here.