We could love a career criminal even if they weren’t motivated, though the eponymous Baby certainly has drive. They don’t even need goodness, with which Ansel Elgort springs every step and turns every glance into a romantic rebellion. All they really need is to be good at their job. Not even the film has to be good – Bruce Willis sparkled in Hudson Hawk as the cat burglar who timed his perfect crimes by singing showtunes, while the film was too stodgy with cliché to ever take off. Baby Driver wouldn’t have to be good to soar: watching Baby at work would have been reward enough. It gets so rewarding it starts to feel like we cheated our way into another theater, in a place where the movies are still fun despite being exciting. It’s a place we haven’t visited in a while.
Action, if it has the capacity to be anything but exciting, can physically denote a character where talking can only do it verbally. After bailing on Disney’s Ant-Man, Edgar Wright aimed to pressure-cook every visual second of Baby Driver into a demonstration of character (the desire to do so must have been the “creative difference” that made him leave Disney, whose finished Ant-Man professed to be about the wonders of the universe but made none for the audience’s benefit). Wright choreographs different states of driving as a musical would tailor dances to new emotions. As much as Baby Driver features tons of music, driving is its tune.
We understand that a slow dance represents somber joys and tragedies, that a tango bleeds passion, that a waltz grins with drunken life-love. But we think of movie driving as having one face – the chase, a filler of one tone, of better or worse method but always symbolizing nothing but action itself. Yet we know that George Miller mythologized his entire narrative in driving with Mad Max: Fury Road. And now Wright does the same, but with character.
Baby Driver opens with a climax – a car chase to end them all, timed deliriously to a song that it would actually be a spoiler to reveal, more so than any plot detail. Baby throws the emergency brake like most of us would turn our heads, tightening corners, grazing death. He’s too competent to be a daredevil. He’s a prophet of speed and space. We’re addicted in an instant to being his acolyte.
In ten minutes, we think we’ve seen it all. But Wright has only given us the baseline – Baby, settled into his perfect role and hoping for nothing more out of his life. The next drive is hairier, more uncertain, because we learn how much more he wants. After Baby falls in love, he wavers in his velocitized lifestyle: he no longer sees the speed limit of the universe. His criminal cohorts argue in time to staccato signals of constant musical information, with the drums starting and stopping, timed to gunshots, clipping through the rhythm of the scene in every detail like the pulse of the whole world is timed to Baby’s setlist. And notice the cars. Where his getaway in the opening scene was in a crimson Ferrari, this one is in a four-wheel drive, off-road looking thing that smashes indelicately around the highway and makes no turns sharper than the ones Baby makes uncertainly in his changing mind. And when Baby is driving for his life, the once-exalting action gest desperate; Baby feels trapped by it. The final chase is Baby on foot, with no pulse, an escape with no concept of freedom, both for and from his life. Music is not an accompaniment in Baby Driver, any more than a pulse is an accompaniment to life – they are inextricable.
Debora (Lily James) describes Baby’s closest idea of freedom to him at the diner: “Sometimes all I want to do is head west on 20 in a car I can't afford with a plan I don't have – just me, my music, and the road.” James plays the inevitable love interest in Baby Driver without a lot of passion, but meaningfully so, like she’s a backup singer in her own life (or Cinderella sweeping up, or any number of chicks in the movies Baby Driver is pretending like it hasn’t seen). Even when she’s with Baby, she’s just along for the ride.
Yes, Baby is his real name (“B-A-B-Y, Baby”), as real as any codename that a script assigns to one of its players. Even as he drives deeper into the role of an action star, he drives further from the world in which he doesn’t belong. He drives to escape something he knows too well, a world he seems better acquainted with than anyone else, in which no one believes him when he tells them his name even though, as Debora says, every song ever written is about him. He seems to know the world’s “open sesame,” like any minute he’ll turn around and call the wind by its first name. In the second opening, Baby skips through the world to the song no one realizes guides it (Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl, apparently), graffiti emerging to pantomime the lyrics, a chalk arrow and the word “here” marking the path of his shoes.
Ferris Bueller’s blank check on the world was that he had no talents to deserve so much attention, not even from us. The tragedy of Baby is that he possesses a talent, propounded by the movies to godliness, and no recognition. His spirit has currency that no one will cash.
He’s such a hotshot he never has to prove it – like Howard Roark mixed with Fonzie. But the other burglars-for-hire heckle him as a “retard” even after they’ve been in his car. Wright concocts a classic Tarantino-esque bit to prove how unflappable Baby is, featuring an overstated Jon Bernthal and understated Jon Hamm (except in the eyes – beaming with playful violence). During a mission briefing made jagged by small-talk, like Reservoir Dogs in a faster gear, Griff (Bernthal) calls Baby retarded and knocks off his sunglasses while Buddy (Hamm) and Darling (Eliza González) tell him to leave the kid alone. Baby, inexhaustible, repeatedly replaces the glasses with others, deep in the frame while the actors with more mileage strain themselves in the foreground trying to absorb a drop of the film’s charm supply (Bernthal runs a facial marathon and can’t match the distance Hamm covers with a stubbly smile). Doc (Kevin Spacey) interjects as Baby’s mob foster dad, “Retarded means slow. Is he slow?” Doc never has to prove he has capable atrocities concealed within him (and neither, apparently, does Spacey). But with a glance he also threatens to uncover his vulnerable heart, calloused by purposeful world-weariness. Now that we’ve blacklisted the actor, I don’t know who will replace him in all these roles made in his complex image, his emotion without expression, all these card-shark lovers and sociopathic foster dads. Hopefully we’ll discover someday that Bobby Darin had a child with Satan so we’ll be covered.
Baby turns that soundbite of Spacey talking (he says everything like he’s trading emotional stocks) into a mix-tape on some recording equipment that belongs in another decade, probably the same one Baby Driver came from. Baby has dozens of tapes of this impromptu life music and seems to be composing it in his head (it drowns out the ringing in his ears and the busy guilt in his brain). He’s like if August Rush went through puberty and discovered electronica. He sees the music in the mundane.
But Baby doesn’t regard anyone enough to offend them, even if this is what his cohorts find so offensive. Baby is in crime without having a criminal in him, which movie characters who wear their tragic backstories on their sleeves can’t stand (neither probably can the films that aren’t as good as Baby Driver). He’s not really even a musician: the music is tenacious but not structurally brilliant. He has no repressed ambition to be a DJ. He just composes his own pulse.
Baby is the film’s heartbeat, but it would have to stutter more to stay perfectly interesting. Baby Driver is a much better pitch than a story, in which Griff would have been right to say that someday Baby will have to confront the cost of being a criminal, if the film ever thought that was important. Baby unravels his crime life one connection, one breathless chase at a time, all adding up to thirty minutes of rebellion. But it’s a rebellion against a life he didn’t make, wasn’t responsible for, never took advantage of, and never wanted. Movie emotions like revenge and redemption don’t really work against a person whose character is, to the audience, so without fault that we can even psychologically explain, with the help of handy flashbacks, how his faults aren’t really flaws. Pulp Fiction only works so long as we don’t know Vince’s and Jules’ backstory, how they were in a car crash with their parents, met at the orphanage, reluctantly took up crime, or whatever. The fault lies with Baby Driver in mistaking this kind of demystification for necessary movie story, and using up some of its drive trying to be contained in a movie mold where the paradox of its first act – improvisation choreographed to the most meticulous detail – was such a better ride. Buddy ends up with so much more motivation you almost root for him.
Deborah for instance has no justifiable reason to go with Baby in a third-act all-or-nothing life on the run, love or bust. She has every reason to be intrigued and suspicious but none to be so forthcoming with her soul, even if it’s only the relatively worthless soul (apparently) of a movie waitress. She seems to love Baby like we do, but she’s ineffective as our avatar in a film that communicates character already along the momentous sightline of each gear shift and every sharp turn. She needed agency and has none, reduced to a movie prop against Baby’s bullet fragments of narrative. Spider-Man-style, I expected Baby to give her up to protect her when things went bad. But nope – he makes her bait a bad guy charging in a cop car with her skinny legs and can-do attitude. He unravels her life on a whim. That life is just so unimportant to everyone that it doesn’t change where we end up.
Nothing even as out of tune as the whole romance unraveling into an obligation can dampen the enjoyment of the addicting melody that is the movie-event of watching Baby Driver. Wright is a new maestro in the greatest traditions of exhilaration, crafting almost no action that is not simultaneously character development, especially early on (the first act of Baby Driver is such perfection that the high lasts the whole runtime, even when things simmer down). Even films that strive for a note of its rock anthem can usually only marry the man to the machine, the Han Solo to the Millennium Falcon, the Dominic Toretto to the ’70 Dodge Charger. Baby can’t keep a car intact (you’d swear that Ferrari would be his signature). He doesn’t personify his car, but the disembodied concept, the religion, of drive. Wright wisely abandons the rapid-fire editing that turned mundane things into violent impacts in Hot Fuzz. In Baby Driver, he films everything like the world he makes, paced to Baby’s life. Where Simon Pegg’s characters are always victimized in their own story, Baby is in the driver’s seat, and Wright becomes his virtuoso of speed and sound.
We are never lost in the action in this film. It’s as though every other car chase is the tinnitus that Baby Driver hopes to drown out. Every second is a symphony of glass shard and bent metal; the camera cuts not too close or too often to changes in the action to lose or distract us. The human beings remain motivated in the mayhem no matter how hectic it gets (Jamie Foxx should get special mention for his angry energy and suspicious eyes). Still I could see Wright sharing with Tarantino the complaint that he’s “all style and no substance.” Here he proves by constructing his character narrative, in acts, completely through driving, that in film these were never mutually exclusive and never will be. We believe in Wright as we believe in Baby, as we cannot when other people get behind the wheel. The big crashes are so credible they don’t even hurt – music to my ears.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew