Though unlikely to get much attention throughout the major awards season, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was one of the year’s best for many film fans. Vince Gilligan’s long-awaited jump to feature films was, much like the original show that provided the basis for his first movie, understated yet epically proportioned and, most importantly, totally unforgettable.
One of El Camino‘s most exciting aspects was its heavy incorporation of Breaking Bad‘s neo-western elements. A very distinct genre itself, it can be hard to even identify what a neo-western is, let alone find the best examples of them. So, here, we’ve compiled a list of ten great examples that possess some of El Camino‘s best qualities too.
No Man’s Land (2013)
Ning Hao’s odd thriller transposes the American West for the Northern deserts of China but the human drama of desperate travelers and opportunistic crooks remains the same. Xu Zheng’s lead will no doubt remind a Breaking Bad fan more of slimy lawyer Saul Goodman than he will Jesse Pinkman, but that’s by no means a bad thing if entertainment is your concern.
No Man’s Land is plenty dark but it’s never without that same sense of humor that runs throughout everything Breaking Bad related. It’s a fairly madcap story concerning a poached falcon and a mess of colorful criminals all colliding with each other, but it’s also a story that never forgets its own sense of morality either
Lonely Are the Brave (1962)
Kirk Douglas’ displaced cowboy is a far cry from Jesse Pinkman, though equally flawed in his own ways, and his struggle against authority is a lot more typical of the 1960s, with a screenplay from infamous blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (once portrayed by Bryan Cranston on Oscar-nominated form). But Lonely Are the Brave sees perfectly eye to eye with El Camino regarding their staunch belief in the power of simple-but-effective cinematography.
One of the most impressive things about El Camino was how Gilligan and DOP Marshall Adams resisted most urges to be flashy with the movie’s look. Instead, the elegance of smooth camera movements creates a much more lasting visual impact and Lonely Are the Brave is an equally gorgeous take on a criminal flee from justice where the audience is rooting for the criminal.
Mystery Road (2013)
In terms of creating mythic Western heroes like Jesse Pinkman in the last decade, few have lived up to the achievements of the Breaking Bad universe quite like Detective Jay Swan. Written, directed, scored, edited and shot by Ivan Sen, Mystery Road is a barebones detective story set in rural Australia that looks at a similarly harsh and unforgiving world through an often-beautiful lens.
Sen’s cinematography is a perfect example of the kind of realistic-but-striking approach that Adams and Gilligan cultivated on Better Call Saul and carried over to El Camino, the same going for the movie’s constantly simmering tension that boils over into an inevitable gunfight.
Aaron Pedersen returns as Detective Jay Swan in Sen’s bigger and bolder follow-up to Mystery Road. A new town, a new mystery but the same old human greed that swallows up the innocent and forces bloody confrontations. Goldstone goes for double the scale, double the action and double the villainy, with both David Wenham and Jacki Weaver taking over from Hugo Weaving’s captivating ne’er-do-well in Mystery Road.
Most impressive is Pedersen’s greater journey into the complexities of his character and the results make it no wonder why he continues to this day as Jay Swan on TV, with a second season of the Mystery Road series set for 2020.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
David Lowery injects a little bit of the Southern Gothic into the New West but dials down the horror and dials up the romanticism for a memorably lyrical experience that evokes the feeling of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman. It’s a gutsy move and it’s one that’s backed up fully by Bradford Young’s beguiling cinematography.
Perhaps a little like the doomed romance between Jesse and Jane, had it been allowed to play out longer, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints follows the triangle of emotion between Casey Affleck’s bandit, Rooney Mara’s moll and Ben Foster’s police officer. The movie’s full of amazing actors and performances, particularly from Foster, and Breaking Bad fans will certainly notice Skinny P himself, Charles Baker, taking center stage in a much more menacing role than usual.
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)
Tommy Lee Jones’ first theatrically-released movie cemented him as a depressing tour de force in modern Hollywood almost a decade before he became a grumpy meme at the Golden Globes.
Three Burials is a strange – yet entirely believable – story of slow-cooked revenge taken by Jones’ ranchhand as he seeks to rectify the injustice perpetrated by Barry Pepper’s ignorant Border Patrol agent against his titular best friend. It’s a haunting, spiritual, journey that’s yet to be outdone in those aspects, though it’s easy to see why nobody would want to try.
Lone Star (1996)
John Sayles revises the image of the Western for a thriller, like El Camino, with little shooting but plenty of firepower in the story and drama departments.
The narrative timeline jumps back and forth as Chris Cooper’s Texas border town sheriff investigates the murder of one of his recently unearthed predecessors, with close ties to his own father (another of the town’s former sheriffs, played in flashbacks by Matthew McConaughey). The answers that he finds aren’t what he expects with Sayles’ deconstruction of the past, and the West itself, pulling no punches.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Ben Foster returns to the neo-western as a considerably different character in David Mackenzie’s bank-robbing thriller set in West Texas. Hell or High Water is an intense ride that’s even less concerned with hiding its social allegory than Breaking Bad was.
Foster plays the near-psychotic brother of Chris Pine’s much more grounded rancher as they attempt to steal just enough money to keep their family’s land. But its Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham that will probably remind fans most of the Breaking Bad world with their turns as bickering Texas Rangers, a dynamic sure to bring up memories of DEA agents Hank Schrader and Steve Gomez.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
John Sturges directed some of the biggest examples of the Western genre to ever grace the screen, most of which – interestingly enough – came out after his defining modernist take on the genre in the mid-1950s. Bad Day at Black Rock follows Spencer Tracy’s mysterious stranger as he arrives in an even more mysterious southwestern town. His quest for answers from the terrified townsfolk leads to a classic showdown that plays out in a very unique way.
Breaking Bad devotees will notice a lot of Jonathan Banks’ fan-favorite character Mike Ehrmantraut in Tracy’s no-nonsense performance. They’ll also appreciate the transformation of the small into the cinematically huge via the use of cinematography. Like El Camino, it’s a story of little people caught in a big world and it’s impossible not to lose yourself in the movie’s vast CinemaScope presentation and those arresting 50s colors.
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)
One of the few directors to ever compare to Sturges in the evolution of the American Western into contemporary times, Sam Peckinpah possibly perfected the genre with Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. A grim and unusual story, even for Peckinpah, it wasn’t without the director’s hallmarks and hails of gunfire but it stands up almost fifty years later as a near-incomparable movie.
Peckinpah and Steve McQueen had certainly brought forward the cool of the Western’s most iconic heroes into the modern world with The Getaway, but Alfredo Garcia showcased something entirely new with Warren Oates’ conflicted and emotional lead character and he’ll remind Breaking Bad fans of Aaron Paul’s all-or-nothing performance far more.