Ever since the debacle with Marvel’s Ant-Man and the limits to the creative freedom he was allowed to express, Edgar Wright went somewhat dark. It was uncertain where he would go from here, whether he would return to independent, original filmmaking, whether he’d translate his ideals to another studio project. It was a patient wait to arrive at the solution. And so we arrive at Baby Driver, a film that had long been in the pipework for Wright, and a film that may just be the strongest effort from the filmmaker yet.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. To briefly summarise what to expect going in, the film focuses on the shady bank robbery shenanigans of dodgy gangster mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his fluctuating crew of daring, criminal underlings, played by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm and Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Flea. More specifically however, as the title quite manifestly underlines, the film follows Doc’s escape driver, Baby (Ansel Elgort), the best in the business but a man who’s desperate to get out of said business entirely, squaring up his debt to Doc, and maybe making something of an ideal future for him with a girl he becomes increasingly fond of, local diner waitress Debora (Lily James).
Now reading this, some may be wondering if I’m merely doubling down on the plot to Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 arthouse romance/thriller Drive. That film, itself a piece of cinematic brilliance, also follows a heist driver, someone who additionally meets a possible love interest who shakes up his plans for the future with desires to escape his profession.
However, as I have already stipulated, this is still an incredible and original effort from Wright. So what makes this so unique? Well, firstly, I deliberately omitted a key plot point from the synopsis for this purpose. You see, in addition to being the best driver in town, Baby is also uniquely ailed: he suffers from tinnitus, a ‘hum in the drum’ as Doc surmises, so has to repeatedly listen to music in order to drown out the noise. What Wright does with this however is something truly ambitious, exciting and a real tangent from the formulaic action thriller procedure that this film could have been.
With Baby Driver, Wright utilises a soundtrack consisting of both popular and obscure songs, for Baby to listen to as the action unfolds. Now you may be thinking that all manner of films provide a similar feature. The films of Quentin Tarantino, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, even Refn’s Drive, utilise a soundtrack of selected songs to further dramatize and accentuate moments within their films, even becoming a little synonymous with the scenes they feature in (who could ever think of anything other than severed ears when listening to Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheels).
However, what Wright achieves is all the more refreshing. With Baby Driver, he directly manipulates the action, editing it (alongside Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss) to the beats of the music. One shootout, for example, has its gunshots and physical struggles synchronised to the song Tequila by The Button Down Brass. Another sequence later on in the film has cars weaving and drifting to the guitar riffs of Queen’s Brighton Rock.
Just in this very decision alone, do we find Wright truly pushing the boundaries of filmmaking. Editing a picture can be hard enough, but to take the time to directly block, execute and edit scenes to the exact beats of a song is a feat of technical brilliance that must be lauded. What’s more is that it isn’t a mere aesthetic gimmick: it’s entirely character-driven, made all the more apparent due to Baby’s constant desire to mouth words to, dance along to and in one hilarious little moment, rewind a song to a particular moment he loves. It gives the film such a refreshing vibe that, to an avid filmgoer who watches a lot of often repetitive re-treads of action thriller formula, is greatly appreciated.
Do not think that Wright’s genius technical move is the only standout feature of Baby Driver. The narrative, from a screenplay penned by the director himself, is fluid, classical in feel and enjoyably daring in its willingness to hit the brakes every once in a while, to let relationships grow and characters develop. The most significant of these relationships is between Baby and Debora. While some have claimed that their love story is a little underdeveloped, I personally believe that this is the fundamental and intended effect: a classical romance reminiscent of a Howard Hawks or Frank Capra film. With their spontaneous, circumstantial romantic interludes, Baby and Debora’s romance has a timeless feel, itself a joyful partnership that we endorse over the life of crime Baby is otherwise submitted to. Lily James really sells her character’s charm and effervescence that enable us to identify with Baby’s sudden realisation of affection, and her personal engagements with Baby will bring a smile to all faces.
In addition to Lily James’ Debora, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza González and the rest of the heist crew performers really bring their A game to parts that could otherwise appear hammy (apologies for the pun, Jon), like a roster of famous cameos included just to reel in bums to the seats of the theatre. Spacey imbues his usual, delectable and snarky villainy in Doc, with some welcome twists in his arc that the actor sells with excellence: as a performer who persuaded us all that the serial killings of seven individuals in David Fincher’s Seven was uncomfortably justifiable, Spacey has always been a master of narrative persuasion. For me, the highlight would have to be Foxx though, who’s trademark charisma refuses to get in the way of a character that is undeniably abhorrent yet packed with quotable lines (‘the moment you catch feelings, is the moment you catch a bullet’). I dare you to try and hold back the harks of delight during the aforementioned ‘Tequila’ shootout sequence, within which Foxx shines.
And of course Elgort brings his own brand of puppy-eyed magnetism to play. From The Fault in our Stars’ to his current role as Baby, Elgort has proven himself adept at subtly underplaying characters with difficult pasts. Rather than going all-out on the melodrama, Elgort opts for the minutiae of the performance, making us respect and encourage Baby’s narrative decisions throughout the film even more.
Ultimately, however, it all comes down to Wright and his production team. From the underrated cinematographer Bill Pope, who’s colourful and momentous work here reminds us why he’s one of the strongest DP’s at capturing speedy and exciting action – with previous contributions such as The Matrix and Spider-Man 2 – to the aforementioned Amos, Machliss and the sound mixing team, whose contributions to editing and sound synchronisation here is unprecedented. Baby Driver is a technical tour de force but also a refreshingly enjoyable and fascinating narrative ride. For its behind-the-scenes brilliance, Wright is quickly becoming a contemporary successor to masters Sergei Eisenstein and Robert Bresson in his innovations within sound and editing. For its overall effect, Baby Driver is the La La Land of heist movies: a return to a bygone era of classical storytelling, informed by contemporary technique and design. Just please, Edgar, don’t leave it so long until your next movie.