Tire squeals and gunshots are all set to rhythm in Edgar Wright’s latest film. While there’s plenty of levity to be found in Baby Driver but this is Wright’s first film where the action, not the comedy, comes first. Nevertheless, even when the film becomes more serious than any of his previous offerings, the director handles the pacing and tone like a bandleader that keeps his group in tune and on beat.
Ansel Elgort is the titular Baby, a getaway driver for a ring of Atlanta bank robbers, led by Doc (Kevin Spacey). Befitting his name, Baby is younger than his cohorts, but what makes him truly standout is that he is almost always listening to music through his earbuds. To overcome the tinnitus he suffers from (due to a childhood car accident, which also took the lives of his parents) he has given his life a never-ending soundtrack. In the film’s opening scene, Baby listens to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms.” Wright films the bank robbery from Baby’s point of view. The heist is seen from outside the bank and every action is set to stop-start beat of the song. Baby even lip syncs. He is defined by a stark contradiction: he’s a bright music-loving naïve in a dangerous world. But he sure can drive. The rest of the opening scene is rip-roaring car chase set to the rest of “Bellbottoms.” The action is fast-paced but clear. What’s more, it delivers insight into Baby’s character. He proves himself capable of thinking in the moment, as well as pulling off deliberate plans to fool the cops. The action deftly switches from the road to inside the car. The rest of this crew (played by Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, and Eiza González) are stunned. They may be able to handles guns, but Baby can handle the car. Wright establishes almost all you need to know about how to watch this film. It’s like a great opening track of an album, one that demands attention.
The next time we see Baby, he’s on a coffee-run for the crew. As the soundtrack blasts Bob & Earl’s R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle” Elgort plays Baby joyfully strut through the street as someone loving life on a different level than most people walking through their day. Baby Driver is a film by and for music- and film-lovers and Elgort plays Baby’s love for music so unabashedly, he communicates that enthusiasm to the audience.
Wright is building on what directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have done, adding music cues so scenes have a larger-than-life feel. The reason why Baby Driver can do this for the entire film is that everything is played as epic. This may surprise people used to Wright’s other films. In “The Cornetto Trilogy” (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), normal English life is interrupted by these bewildering genre elements like zombies or alien robots. In Baby Driver, you have outsized American characters who are already being played at a heightened level. Baby’s love interest, Debora (Lily James), introduces herself by confessing a fantasy of driving out west “in a car I can’t afford and a plan I don’t have.” Baby’s fiercest antagonist is Bats (Jamie Foxx), who tells Baby “the moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.” He cocks a rifle just to bring his point home. This arch tone won’t be for everyone’s taste, but dialogue that sounds like song lyrics is perfect for a movie and a main character driven by music. What’s more, it’s worth pointing out that this is Wright’s first US-based film (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World being set in Toronto). With Baby Driver, he joins a tradition of foreign directors like Sergio Leone and Paul Verhoeven, who depict America as a land of mythic adventure.
The cast are up for all this. Foxx and Spacey are known for large performances, so playing bank robbers works perfectly for them. Everyone’s got a codename and one defining characteristic. Spacey plays crime boss Doc in a somewhat understated manner, as a man who always commands respect and never raises his voice because he never has to. The softer touch makes Doc not just believable as a criminal but also a paternal figure for Baby. Foxx’s Bats is, well, bat-shit crazy. The film uses him to increase the violence and to mark the difference between the real criminal world and Baby. Foxx plays it with both glee and menace, and the way he relishes the role makes him a powerful force in this film.
Baby Driver plays these violent criminal elements against the sweet side of Baby’s world. Lily James’ Debora validates Baby’s innocent side with her sweet smile and inquisitive looks. They bond over music and the two sound like fans you’d overhear in a record store (if your town still has one). Except every time Debora asks about Baby’s job, he meets it with deflection. CJ Jones as Baby’s foster father Joe is a deaf actor in a deaf role. He and Baby communicate via sign language, and the many faces of frustrations Joe gives Baby reveal a love for a kid in trouble. Both Debora and Joe are archetypes, but they’re archetypes played with open-eyed sincerity.
While the characters may be simplistic, the film is still intricate and textured. There are callbacks in dialogue, some of which even become visual. One character warns that you never make Hamm’s character of Buddy “see red.” When his character makes a turn, he’s bathed in red. You may miss this little trick, and if you do it doesn’t hurt your enjoyment of the film, but it’s an example of how well thought out all of Wright’s choice are. The film is full of smart moments like that, big and small.
Wright and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss have almost every element of Baby Driver respond to the beat of the soundtrack, from scene transitions to an actor’s split-second hand gesture. Thanks to the charm and inventiveness on display, this never gets tired. Instead, Baby Driver is an inspiring reminder of what the combination of sound and visuals can do for a familiar story.