The British writer-director behind the “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy – consisting of Shaun of the Dead (2004), Hot Fuzz (2007), and The World’s End (2013) – and also the director behind 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World, Edgar Wright, is known for his unique, kinetic, energetic cinematic style. Unlike most comedy directors working today, Wright finds humor in the filmmaking, utilizing framing, lighting, mise-en-scène, camera movement, editing, and sound to pull as much comedy out of a scene as possible. With his latest film, Baby Driver, Wright has not only improved upon his signature style, but matured with it.
Like David Fincher, Wright is honing his craft with every film he makes, relying less on his style and more on imbuing the style with substance. If his early works are similar to those of Fincher’s (Se7en, The Game, Fight Club), then Baby Driver is his Zodiac — a disciplined and elegantly orchestrated thriller that feels both effortless and impossibly intricate. It uses music to inform the characters and their emotions, the same way clever composition underscores the themes and characters of Fincher’s films.
Ansel Elgort (of The Fault in Our Stars) stars as “Baby”, a good-hearted getaway driver who gets criminals from point A to point B with the help of the soundtrack running through his head. That’s because Baby’s got his escape route plotted to the beat of specific songs that go straight from his expertly curated iPod straight to his ears. His pulse-pounding playlist translates into precise hairpin turns, gear shifts, and evasive maneuvers that leave his passengers in awe and their pursuers, the Atlanta Police Department, in the dust.
Baby works for “Doc” (Kevin Spacey), a white-collar crime boss who specializes in daytime bank heists, thanks in part to Baby’s wheelman skills. Doc’s go-to gunslingers include slicked-back outlaw Buddy (Jon Hamm), the brunette bombshell Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the mentally unstable Bats (Jamie Foxx), whose suspicions about Baby’s abilities begin to create a dangerous rift in an otherwise smooth-running operation. Baby, meanwhile, is saving up to get out of the game for good at the behest of his elderly deaf foster father (CJ Jones).
Complicating matters is the fact that Baby has fallen for the kind-eyed Debora (Lily James), the newest waitress at the ’50s diner he routinely visits. Like Baby, she is looking for a way out. “Sometimes all I want is to head west on I-20 in a car I can’t afford, with a plan I don’t have, just me, my music, and the road,” she says. That sounds great to Baby, but one last job stands between them and the open road. But this time, the heist isn’t an act of clockwork precision. Mistakes are made, and the consequences of each wrong turn begin to weigh heavily on Baby, forcing the wheelman to get his hands dirty to protect the ones he loves.
Baby Driver is an action thriller executed as postmodern musical comedy, where exhilarating car chases and intense shootouts are choreographed to the beat of over 30 tracks, including “Bellbottoms” from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “Neat Neat Neat” by The Damned, and “Brighton Rock” by Queen. It’s not just the action sequences that are painstakingly choreographed to music, either. Baby gets his own La La Land-esque dance number, set to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle.” While on a coffee run, Baby nimbly traverses the streets of Atlanta in step with the song as lyrics appear as part of the mise-en-scène. These scenes are incredibly intricate, with everything in the frame — pedestrians, café workers, street preachers, children, dogs — in perfect synchronization to Wright’s soundtrack.
In addition to these brilliantly executed action-musical numbers, there’s a lot going on within the story itself. While the story is very much Baby’s, Baby Driver is an ensemble movie. As much as the kid would like to escape his “co-workers,” he can’t. He’s a loner — a member of a gang he doesn’t want to be in, and one that he can’t seem to get away form. Elgort does an excellent job of capturing Baby’s conflicting emotions around his loyalty to Doc and his desperate need to get away from him at the same time. As for Doc, Spacey excels at being bad. Whether it’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Se7en, The Usual Suspects, House of Cards, or Baby Driver, Spacey has a way of delighting you with how corrosive and venomous he can be. Likewise, Hamm and Foxx are equal parts charismatic and sinister, and they manage to be funny while entirely unlikable.
My favorite part of the ensemble, however, is CJ Jones’ character Joseph. Many of the film’s sweetest moments come not from Baby and Debora’s relationship, but from the kid’s interactions with the elderly deaf man who has raised him. It’s this relationship, in juxtaposition to the high level of danger that threatens both Baby and Joseph, that creates the highest stakes in a Wright film yet. And because of those high stakes, the film has the most heart of any of Wright’s work thus far – a sign that the filmmaker is maturing and evolving beyond what’s expected of him.
The only downside to Wright’s immensely entertaining film is that, while masterfully staged and executed, there isn’t anything about it that feels as revelatory as seeing Shaun of the Dead or Scott Pilgrim vs the World for the first time. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the way Wright combined genres in those movies felt more fluid, where the plot, characters, and filmmaking all came together perfectly to create something that felt fresh and new. Here, dynamic action sequences, creative filmmaking, and great performances elevate a story that, without wall-to-wall music fueling it, isn’t that interesting. Still, Wright’s enthusiasm for storytelling is infectious, and despite feeling like I didn’t see anything new in Baby Driver, I certainly enjoyed the ride.
Adam’s Rating: 4 out of 5