An amazing showcase for one of modern cinema’s most fascinating visual stylists.
Though Baby Driver is writer/director Edgar Wright’s fifth feature film (sixth if you count 1995’s A Fistful of Fingers), in some ways it feels like a debut. The Cornetto Trilogy was a unique collaboration with Simon Pegg, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World was a graphic novel adaptation with co-writer Michael Bacall. But this is the first purely Edgar Wright movie ever made. Above its obvious value as a piece of rip roaring entertainment, it’s also an amazing showcase for one of modern cinema’s most fascinating visual stylists.
The film follows Baby, a young getaway driver played by Ansel Elgort. Baby has tinnitus and has to constantly play music to drown out the pain. It’s the result of a traumatic car accident from his childhood, yes, but it’s also a brilliant diegetic excuse for the film to be flooded with wall to wall needle drops. Baby’s got an adorably twee collection of iPods, each loaded with playlists for every job. Baby also likes to record interactions with Doc (Kevin Spacey) and each of his criminal cohorts, among them heavies like Bats (Jamie Foxx), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Buddy (Jon Hamm). These little audio clips get sampled in the lo-fi mixes Baby makes in his spare time.
On the surface, Baby Driver presents a stylized take on crime fiction that’s well in line with what cinephiles love about the genre. It’s dripping with cool in the way Tarantino’s ‘90s work always did, but it feels distinctly Edgar Wright. In the film’s first half, the heists and interplay feel decidedly movie-like, as Baby is able to fool himself into thinking what he does isn’t as wrong as his collaborators because he’s just a driver. There’s something lovable and childlike in the way his obsession with music distances himself from the dirty work he’s instrumental in carrying out. But as the film progresses, more and more of reality seeps in, and though the film never loses a sleek step, this fantasy land Baby lives in begins to dissipate like fog, leaving him to grapple with the life of crime he’s lived since childhood.
The impetus for all of this is, of course, Baby meeting a girl. Lily James plays the girl who gets Baby to see a world beyond driving fast. Debora (spelled just like the T. Rex song, natch), merely by existing in his presence, shows Baby a different kind of life he never quite realized he was longing for in all those great pop songs he loves so much. But while the romance with Debora is a driving force, it’s Baby’s relationship with surrogate father Joseph (CJ Jones) that truly helps him to see the light. Black, deaf and in a wheelchair, Joseph is instantly the most iconic patriarch in recent cinematic history, outdoing every iteration of Uncle Ben’s “with great power” speech from Spider-Man without ever saying a word. Joseph just wants Baby to use his considerable gift for driving fast to deliver pizza and care for his girl with money he didn’t steal from a bank.
Of course, this being a movie about career criminals, One Last Job gets Baby hemmed up with Doc’s crew. The film’s first half drips with hipster cool, but once the shit hits the fan, Wright’s DePalma-esque flair for pushing the boundaries of cinematic language goes to work playing a visceral game of catch-up, hitting Baby with brutal doses of reality that his cleverly curated soundtracks have kept him insulated from.
That soundtrack is going to be an obvious smash and will be gushed about at length in every other review you read about this film, and for good reason. It’s a smart, infectious assemblage of songs that gives the film its propulsive energy. In Baby Driver, Wright has continued the formalism he played with so effectively in Scott Pilgrim. Both films are ostensibly musicals, but his latest gets to play with brilliantly orchestrated action and car chases leagues beyond the admittedly wonderful work of his last effort. The way the film careens from a balletic sense of grace into the gravity of its car crash entropy final act is maybe the most over the top way to dramatize a young man coming to grips with the consequences of his action in ages.
Between the dope songs and all the cleverer-than-thou references to obvious influences like Walter Hill’s The Driver, Baby Driver is going to be an easy slam dunk for a certain kind of filmgoer, but hopefully no one overlooks how fantastic the cast is. CJ Jones easily steals the picture as Joseph, but Elgort’s turn in the lead role feels like a throwback that could propel his growing star into future supernova status. He’s always come off so milquetoast, but, in Baby, Elgort channels Elvis and Jean Pierre Leaud in equal measure, contrasting so well with guys like Hamm and Foxx, each wielding their gravitas like a cudgel over Baby’s neophyte naivete.
At times, the film may grate audience members who like their crime flicks with fewer cartoonish flourishes, but for those with a hint of patience, Baby Driver’s early preciousness pays dividends, creating the rare caper film that glamorizes breaking the law just as much as it demonizes it.