Directed By: Edgar Wright
Written By: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm
Few filmmakers demonstrate such a command of the cinematic artform as Edgar Wright does with Baby Driver, a wondrous symphony of romance, violence, vitality, funk, comedy and untethered imagination. Wright, a cinephile of Scoresesian proportions, grants every tool of the medium its own time to shine: the wowing stunt work seen in the film’s many car chases, the endlessly creative application of music (not just background noise, the music maps the action), the director’s trademark sudden burst editing, smooth and seamless photography (the film’s opening credits are accompanied by a herculean long take that would make Robert Altman’s eyebrows raise), a brand of dialogue which finds an improbable sweet-spot between Tarantino-like punchiness and deliberately cliched tough-guy vernacular, and a host of arresting performances, ranging from sympathetic to psychotic.
At base level, Baby Driver’s story is a familiar one: a love story in which the two lovers find themselves tangled in a web of crime; through this lens, the film calls to mind the noted likes of Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands. In terms of its framework however, Baby Driver is utterly unique, a romantic-comedy quasi-musical heist thriller that very much marches to the beat of its own drum; to use a car pun, the film doesn’t so much shift gears from genre to genre, as it does operate in five different gears at once. To use another car pun, Wright slams his foot to the pedal and never lets up.
Speaking of drum, the film’s title character Baby (Ansel Elgort) suffers from what Kevin Spacey’s omnipotent criminal mastermind Doc refers to as a hum-in-the-drum, tinnitus, a perpetual ringing in the ears following a car accident in Baby’s youth. In order to drown the sound, Baby blares a cavalcade of catchy tunes through his headphones—from Queen’s Brighton Rock to The Button Down Brass’ Tequilla—songs which by extension not only comprise the film’s tireless soundtrack, but which also choreograph its action– the mere making of a sandwich transforms into a miniature funk ballet, whilst everything from the tapping of a toe, to the riffle of the notes in a wad of a cash, to the firing of a gun, chime perfectly to the musical rhythms streaming from one of Baby’s many iPods.
The music also plays a pivotal role in Baby’s getaway driving, a life of crime assigned to him as a means of reimbursing Doc following a run-in years earlier. Baby is Doc’s driver of choice, a prodigious talent behind the wheel who tailors playlists to each job, the music acting both as a cue, and as a means of helping the eponymous character find his groove; on one occasion Baby calls back his criminal cohorts so he can resynch the song with their robbery.
Doc’s hand picked boy doesn’t plan to be a high-speed chauffeur for the rest of his days however. The titular character finds joy rather in fusing tape recordings of conversations with his own custom made hip-hop beats, and caring for Joseph, his deaf, wheelchair bound foster father who, like Beethoven, takes in music through the vibrations it creates. Baby’s life’s ambition, however, is as follows: once his debt with Doc is cleared, Baby will hit the road in a car he can’t afford with a plan he doesn’t have, a sentiment he shares with beautiful waitress Deborah (Lily James), an employee of Baby’s diner of choice, the two swiftly enamoured of the other’s free spiritedness.
Anyone who has seen a movie before however knows that one can’t just up and leave the crime business. The best laid plans; just as Baby and Deborah’s dream is within grasp, the former is roped back into the world he had hoped to leave behind, finding himself involved in a heist alongside a who’s who of unhinged thieves: the cool and steamy couple of Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza Gonzalez), and the deranged, nihilistic Bats (Jamie Foxx.)
Elgort’s minimalist performance offers a much needed fulcrum for the film, cutting through the larger than life spectacle that is Wright’s vision with something more grounded and understated. Elgort’s Baby at first calls to mind Ryan Gosling’s Driver from Drive, stoic and steely to the bone, with sunglasses permanently fixed to his face, less his true boyishness be exposed to the world through his eyes, before surely revealing a youthful zeal and romanticism. Kevin Spacey is as commanding as ever on screen, channelling his inner Frank Underwood with a performance that is it at once malicious and alluring. Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx alternatively turn loose, off the wall and enjoying it, Hamm throwing his intuitive charm back in the viewer’s face at will, whilst Foxx has a field day with the battiness of his aptly named bad guy.
In the end it is Wright however who leaves his stamp on every frame, and if you’re as able as he, why not? With Baby Driver, the British filmmaker has announced himself as something of an auteur, honing a vision that is distinctly his own, yet striking chords of universal appeal. In Wright’s hands, a throwaway sequence of Baby on a coffee run transfigures into a fantastical, bustling, fantasia, our hero grooving his way across town, the lyrics from his track of choice appearing on the surrounding walls and street signs as he shuffles by. In Wright’s hands, a gun deal gone bloodily wrong, becomes something to tap your toe to as you grin ear to ear through morbid enjoyment, immersed in the sequence’s rhythmic yet brutal percussiveness. In Wright’s hands, cleverly constructed car chases morph into narratives of their own, riding the ebb and flow of the accompanying music to effects startlingly dramatic at one turn, and head-bobbingly joyous at another.
There’s a warped fairy-tale quality to Baby Driver, a sense of unrestrained creativity and childlike glee—a brand of effervescence all its own born out of the director’s passion. Wright planted the seeds for Baby Driver all the way back in 2003 with his music video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song, in which comedian Noel Fielding jived from behind the wheel of a getaway car. That premise has now been affectionately nurtured for 14 years, meticulously yet lovingly mapped out, and now finally realised on the big screen. Wright’s ardour for cinema oozes forth in Baby Driver, an exercise in art at its most ambitious, and thankfully for us, we’re along for the ride.