Baby Driver, 2017, 113 minutes. D: Edgar Wright
There is so much to say about Edgar Wright’s new film, Baby Driver. It is a hyper-stylized, music-centered action movie about a getaway driver with severe tinnitus. It takes cues from previous Edgar Wright films, specifically Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, but it feels somehow even more hip and stylish than those already quite stylish films. It also is the anti-Fast and the Furious. Instead of being about bigger and bigger car explosions as it goes on, the movie’s action often takes a backseat to drawn-out, tension-filled sequences à la Inglourious Basterds, or Django Unchained.
Something to note is that this film is Edgar Wright’s first film set in America. Scott Pilgrim takes place in Canada, but its mostly American cast combined with the general cultural similarity between Canada and the US makes it feel very American, but it is also an adaptation, so it is in a somewhat different category. Baby Driver is based in Atlanta, and the whole thing feels squarely set in its location, a refreshing change of pace from a lot of films that are set in generic Californian locations and filmed in a combination of various American or Canadian cities due to tax reasons. This movie gives a unique feel for the city and the setting, going as far as repeatedly sending our protagonist to Octane, a local coffee chain in Georgia. This is a movie that exists in a real place, with a lot of life and texture, and the stunts, filmed on active Atlanta freeways, give it that much more reality.
Baby, our protagonist, is a getaway driver for a heist group led by kingpin Doc, Kevin Spacey, who does a devilishly good job as the professional criminal. Early on we find out Baby lost Doc a lot of money, and has been his getaway driver since he was around 13. Baby is an awkward, quiet kid who is listening to music throughout virtually the entire film. We find out why fairly quickly, he has tinnitus, an unrelenting ringing in the ears, and must constantly drown it out through his iPod lest he go insane.
The film throws you right into the action, as the opening scene shows an in-progress heist at a bank, with the robbers being played by Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza Gonzalez. Once they have their cash, Baby drives them expertly from the bank back to the garage with their respective cars, in one of the most exciting car chase scenes I’ve ever seen. There is a clever sequence in which Baby, driving a red Subaru, pulls up next to two similar looking red sedans, to confuse the helicopter, and under an overpass, switches spots with one of them so they can drive away inconspicuously.
Next, the film has a lengthy title sequence in which we see Baby fetching coffee for the crew, he skips and hops while singing along with his iPod, all the way from the hideout to Octane Coffee and back. The sequence is packed full of little surprises, with the lyrics to the song he’s listening to painted in the graffiti behind him, and his interactions with people being sort of… awkward and bad. The whole thing is one shot, too, which makes it all even more impressive. The movie has many longer shots that are quite choreographed, and ultimately very impressive, yet it all feels so spontaneous, nothing feels rehearsed or planned. The cinematography throughout is brilliant, both in dialog scenes as well as action scenes, in short shots and in long, the film looks amazing throughout.
Act one of the film is a complete whirlwind that goes by blisteringly, of course all set to whatever music Baby is playing on his iPod. It could be Queen, The Beach Boys, Beck, Handsome Boy Modeling School, the kid just loves music. He makes music too, he has a cache of about a hundred cassette tapes, each with one lo-fi plunderphonic wonder on it, made mostly of the surreptitious recordings he’s made of the people in his life, his parents, his partners in crime, the charming new waitress at the diner.
After meeting Debora, the charming new waitress at the diner, Baby realizes that once he’s square with Doc, he doesn’t want to work with him anymore. Debora, played beautifully by Lily James, who is absolutely perfect in this role, has given Baby a new perspective, and frankly, a reason to live. They plan on breaking out of Atlanta and driving to God-knows-where with nothing but the open road and a way to play Baby’s iPods through the car stereo. Things are going great, until Doc extorts Baby into carrying out the dreaded just one more. From here, Baby’s dreams turn to nightmares as his life is threatened, and in a heartbreaking moment, he becomes more subservient to Doc than ever before.
The performances in this film are completely amazing. Jon Hamm goes through perhaps the most change, and his portrayal of a villain is absolutely wonderful. Kevin Spacey plays Doc, the professional criminal, the all-business mastermind behind each heist. Jamie Foxx plays Bats, the loose cannon, the one who goes over Doc’s head, and kind of ruins everything. Hamm and Gonzalez play the PDA-prone couple who seems to be in it more for the thrill than the money. Flea, Jon Bernthal and Lanny Joon all have smaller roles that help round out the ragtag bunch of criminals. And finally, we have Ansel Elgort, who plays Baby, our awkward, music-listening, driving genius. Elgort plays the part wonderfully, and his character keeps his cool head about him virtually the whole film. It is a wonderful performance, but an odd one, as he does not talk that much, and he is playing awkward kid the whole time. He seems fairly ok with the business of crime until he sees firsthand how ruthless Doc is, and then he starts to have second thoughts. Of course, it is love that ultimately causes his change of heart. Jamie Foxx succeeds at being the most terrifying throughout the film, always seeming like he’s about to snap on our poor Baby. He is a show-stealer for sure, delivering much of the film’s humor.
During the film, I kept thinking of Whiplash. Damian Chazelle’s brilliant breakout film before he had even more success with La La Land. That film, like Baby Driver, uses a constant soundtrack to push forward an unrelenting story of a single-minded protagonist, that is stalled only by the introduction of a love interest. In Whiplash, however, the girl is there to show how focused on music Andrew, the protagonist is, and he completely neglects her. In Baby Driver, the love interest is used as a turning point instead, showing Baby how wonderful his depressing life can be, not merely what a distraction love can be. Ultimately, the films are different, but they are both brilliant and breakneck in pace, leaving you at the edge of your seat until the very end.
Baby Driver honestly does everything so well. The fact that most action in the film is set to the rhythms of the songs that Baby is listening to — as well as the music choices themselves — just ooze perfectionism from a choreography and editing standpoint. Each action scene is shot so well, which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as that is sort of Edgar Wright’s thing, but Edgar Wright’s other thing is comedy, and that is here as well, though not to the extent of Hot Fuzz or Scott Pilgrim. The film is funny more in a tense way, with the humor coming more from situations or the occasional 1-liner than coming from a constant rattling off of jokes. More like a Tarantino film in its humor and tension, but with about 10% of the dialogue, and significantly less use of the N-word.
I’ve never had a more physiological response to a film than I did while watching Baby Driver. During the climax, there is a scene during which I audibly gasped in the theater, louder than I ever have gasped before, and I started breathing heavily, to the point of hyperventilation. I had become much more invested in this film than I realized. I’m not sure if it is that the romantic subplot caught me more than I expected it to, or if I just started to strongly dislike the villains, but my emotions had gotten the best of me by the end of the film, and after the hyperventilation came the tears. It was unexpected from Edgar Wright, but I think he is growing up, somewhat, as a filmmaker. As good as his previous films are, there is not a lot of emotional attachment to the protagonists in the Shaun of the Dead–Hot Fuzz–The World’s End trilogy, played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Each of those films are wonderful, and both actors are great in each film, but somehow the stakes are never as high for them as they are for Baby and Debby. Their camaraderie is missing here, as the film lacks a strong non-romantic friendship, but it is still quite good. The film is a bit different in tone as well, from those earlier films, and almost is closer to Scott Pilgrim, in characterization and construct, though not in its subject matter nor effects. Wright’s previous four films are comedy-action movies, and Baby Driver is too, but this film puts de-emphasizes comedy somewhat, making it less of a laugh riot, but something perhaps a bit more meaningful.
Baby Driver is one of the best movies I’ve seen in a while, and it might be Edgar Wright’s best. It is not perfect, there are things you can nitpick: Lily James’s southern accent is all over the place, Ansel Elgort might be underacting at certain points, and the ending might go on a minute or two longer than it should. Ultimately, this is an exciting, heartfelt action film that is equal parts groovy, hilarious, and tense. It is brilliantly paced, with not a single minute wasted. Each scene drives the story forward very well, with some brilliant foreshadowing and Monsters, Inc. references. I honestly recommend everyone go see this. It’s not like you want to go to Despicable Me 3 anyway.
Baby Driver: A