Baby Driver makes no effort at verisimilitude. Its brilliant opening scene is set to ‘Bellbottoms’ by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion; the skids of Baby’s car match the tempo of the music. Nor do the beats let up when the action’s over. The whole of director Edgar Wright’s film is set to music – even when there isn’t a song blasting in the background, the music’s pulse remains.
Here’s the premise of the film. Baby, played by Ansel Elgort, is a prodigiously talented driver. His parents died in a car crash when he was young, an accident that also left him with tinnitus. Through a second unfortunate turn of fate, he’s found himself in the employ of crime boss Kevin Spacey (aka ‘Doc’). Now he’s Doc’s star get-away driver, a gig he’s apparently had for a decade despite seeming no older than Elgort’s 23. All of this is explained to us by Spacey, who upon concluding Baby’s story exclaims, “I just drew a map in chalk while I was telling you all that. Wow! Isn’t that fucking impressive?”. Now by my lights that question’s a triple entendre. First, and perhaps least interestingly, it’s about Doc’s multitasking. Second, it concerns the subject of his story: Baby and his talent. And third, it’s symbolic of the movie we’re watching, with its sleek polish and irresistible cleverness. The whole film is lit up bright – it’s meant to impress and amuse, dazzle and thrill.
And thrill it does. There are, I suppose, at least two obvious ways to capture an audience. The classic way is to do it with depth, by writing three-dimensional characters who suffer X tragedy and respond in Y way, or whatever, and if the director does that really well then he’ll probably pick up an Academy Award for his efforts. If that’s what you think of as excellence in cinema, then you probably won’t like Baby Driver. But a director can also keep his audience glued through speed and wit, by throwing recognisable elements up on the screen then playing around with them in some new and invigorating way. If that’s the task, then the obligation isn’t to operate within the rules of formal logic and plausibility. It would be a mistake to venture too far away and produce something without a plot. But the priority, I think, should be to make sure that what you’re doing is fun. And Baby Driver is fun throughout, even at its tensest moments.
Not that those moments are at all rare. Most of the film’s second half is a nail-biter. Doc has called together Baby, Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eliza González), and the volatile Bats (Jamie Foxx) for a heist. This being the movie that it is, even before the heist goes wrong you know it’s going to. But it’s not concern for the outcome of the robbery that, at least for me, causes the tension. Instead the real point of worry is the fate of Baby’s relationship with Debora (Lily James), the beautiful young woman he meets at the diner where his mother used to work. Baby sees Debora come in, with purple headphones, singing ‘B-A-B-Y’ – it’s a song, you see – and he’s totally hers. And she’s his too. How could she not be? This nice bad boy, who promises to rescue her from this empty town and empty life.
Let me sketch out four scenes for you between Elgort and James. Together, I think, they capture the sensibility of the film. In one, we just see their feet tapping along in unison – his jeans and sneakers, her bare calves and ankle-high black boots. In another, we watch them wine and dine together, at a place with “the finest winin’ and dinin’ in town”, and you can see their lips move but there’s no dialogue. This is a young couple in love. Fill in your own words. In a third, when Baby proposes they finally make their escape, Debora bursts out, ‘We don’t have a car! Or music’. And in the last, Debora emerges from the shadows and plants herself, feet firm, next to her beloved as he begs with Spacey. The sociopathic crime boss caves. It’s not that he’s gone soft. It’s just that he recognises the story… and how ugly it would be for him to stand in the way.
It would be a mistake, as I see it, to think that a film has to do what literature does. Often the best films do appropriate the virtues of literature: they create complex and moving characters and express some moral truth about this thing or that. But there are a couple points to be made here. First, if that’s what film is supposed to be then it’s always going to be inferior as an art form to literature, which is simply more conducive to complexity and thought. But second, whereas literature fails when its characters are caricatures – take, for example, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which like ‘Baby Driver’ tries to set its plot to music – film doesn’t. Sometimes it succeeds through stylish spectacle. And it’s alright to sit back and enjoy the ride.