Netflix Original El Camino Christmas
|Director||David E. Talbert|
|Writer(s)||Theodore Melfi, Christopher Wehner|
|Release Date||December 8, 2017|
News to me, that’s what. I found out about El Camino Christmas thanks mostly to Netflix being sneaky pricks and releasing an original movie that wasn’t listed on our usual schedule. See, I don’t typically review these things. Netflix Dan the Netflix Man, aka our very own Dan Hart, usually books the day off of his real-life job to cover them. (I hope his real-life employer doesn’t read the site.) But seeing as El Camino Christmas slithered into the thumbnails relatively low-key, he got all panicky about it and messaged me. And as my real-life job is doing this shit… well, here we are.
Anyway, don’t let the title fool you. El Camino Christmas is only notionally a Christmas movie. It’s set during the festive period, sure, and it’s being released in December, and the soundtrack is full of ironic Christmassy good cheer. But it’s really just a bog-standard genre movie that happens to have some Christmas trees and decorations in the background of most scenes. I guess that counts.
What this Netflix Original about?
Eric Roth (Luke Grimes) arrives in the fictional town of El Camino looking for a father he’s never met. What he finds instead is a drunken conman (Tim Allen) who lives in his dad’s old apartment, and a corrupt local sheriff (Vincent D’Onofrio) who busts him for a string of made-up offenses. The sheriff, Carl Hooker, is a bullying, bigoted alcoholic who physically abuses Eric while he’s in custody. To avoid any potential legal ramifications, Hooker’s deputy, Billy Calhoun (Dax Shepherd), allows Eric to go on his merry way.
Of course, Hooker runs into Eric on the road. There’s a chase, and then a standoff at a local liquor store. What to do, Eric wonders? If he gives himself up Hooker will lie through his teeth. But if he doesn’t, he’s suddenly a hostage-taker. In the store with Eric and Hooker are the conman Eric met the night before, halfway through a seasonal booze stock-up, the proprietor, Vicente (Emilio Rivera), his employee, Kate (Michelle Mylett), and her mute son. In the absence of any better options, and mindful of the fact we wouldn’t have a movie if he didn’t, Eric decides to take the hostages. Thus, we have our premise.
That sounds… complicated.
Written down, sure. But director David E. Talbert handles the setup surprisingly well. El Camino Christmas is as much a comedy as it is a tragedy and a familial drama and a couple of other things, so Eric’s run of bad luck is at first played for laughs. And it’s funny. The characters are decently-written and believable. The various mistakes and cover-ups of El Camino’s remarkably inept law enforcement team are presented as idiotic and desperate, rather than truly insidious. Characters have quirks without being caricatures; the comedy is silly without being outright slapstick. Early on, these things are all deftly balanced. It does start to fall apart towards the end, but the thing that occurred to me as soon as Vicente’s liquor store became under siege is that I was really enjoying the company of these characters.
Is that thanks to the writing or the performances?
A bit of both, really. The screenplay is courtesy of Ted Melfi and Christopher Wehner, who do a good job of brusquely introducing the players while giving the audience just enough information to keep them compelling. But the actors do most of the heavy lifting. D’Onofrio makes Hooker alternately frightening and pitiable, a man consumed by drink, and undermined by holding a position of authority in a town which has no real need of him. Tim Allen is genuinely excellent as another drunk, but one with a legitimate sense of humour to temper his cynicism. Vicente is immediately warm and likeable; put-on by the sheriff, but warm to Kate and her on-the-spectrum son, who are underserved by Kate’s promiscuous, irresponsible mother.
Nobody here feels new or unique by genre standards, but they’re characters who talk and act like human beings, played by actors who clearly see their appeal. Often, that’s enough.
So where does Netflix Original El Camino Christmas go wrong?
Much like the character of Eric, it really missteps through no fault of its own. Clocking in at barely 90 minutes, this is a short film to a fault. There is no time to really develop the relationships in the liquor store. Plenty of ideas are toyed with, but none get fleshed out. There’s a budding romance between Eric and Kate. There’s Kate’s son beginning to blossom in the unlikeliest circumstances. Then there’s Hooker starting to better understand the regular folk he’s supposed to serve and protect. But because El Camino Christmas is trying to develop all of this alongside a burgeoning police and media presence outside, it just feels flimsy. It makes for some good gags, sure.
One of the best is a shootout between two police officers, one at the back of the store and one at the front, who don’t realise they’re shooting at each other. But as far as lasting impressions go, El Camino Christmas doesn’t make any.
That seems a shame.
It is. The characters are compelling enough that I wish we got to spend more time with them, and the predictable reveal about Eric’s parentage would have played a lot better if it had more time to develop organically. It amounts to an ostensibly emotional finale that didn’t move me because it felt so hasty and contrived. Thankfully we’re treated to an epilogue that shows El Camino once again at its charming, somewhat silly best. I’m happy everyone ended up okay.
For all its faults, I liked El Camino Christmas. It’s a funny, faintly tragic little character study which manages to quite adroitly paint a picture of how damning and dangerous incompetence and apathy can be. In our current climate, I don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world. And if that’s what El Camino Christmas gives us to chew on over the festive period, well… it could be worse.
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