With BABY DRIVER, the latest from writer-director Edgar Wright (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD), being set in Atlanta (a rare instance where an Atlanta-shot movie is actually meant to take place in Atlanta), I couldn’t help admire its Southern charms and attributes. It’s like a Tennessee Williams musical set on four wheels, driving 85 mph down a street that likely has the word “Peachtree” in it. The hero comes from a broken—destroyed really—family; he saw them die in a car crash that has left him mentally and audibly scarred for life. He seeks a kind of desperate refuge in the smile and arms of a waitress, whom he immediately places in danger simply by allowing himself to get close to her.
The young man named Baby (Ansel Elgort from THE FAULT IN OUR STARS) has two men vying for his future and his soul. The first is his foster father Joe (CJ Jones), an elderly deaf man who sees that Baby is associating with the wrong people but is helpless to stop it. The other is Doc (Kevin Spacey), the leader of an ever-changing rogue’s gallery of criminals who pull off big heists in the Atlanta area with Baby as the sole constant—his good-luck charm—as the getaway driver extraordinaire, able to outrun any pursuit and maneuver any traffic pattern you can throw at him. As much as Doc is a criminal, he’s also become something of a mentor to Baby over the years in that he has forced Baby to work for him as a means of payback for merchandise lost when Baby stole a carful of valuable merchandise years earlier.
Baby is a peculiar cat, mostly because of the trauma of seeing his parents die, but I got the sense that he just finds it easier to pull off these heists if he remains emotionally disconnected to the events and people around him, many of whom are quite awful and tease him about his quirks, including the fact that he almost always has earbuds in, listening to a constant soundtrack of carefully curated tunes on a variety of iPods he carries with him. He has walking music, driving music, background music—tunes for every occasion.
Director Wright does a remarkable thing by choreographing just about every move Baby makes to the music in his ears. It’s like watching a musical but none of the characters are singing. It adds an extra layer of energy and vibrancy to BABY DRIVER that a traditional score just wouldn’t. There’s something so inherently immediate about it that at one point, Baby pauses a getaway to start a song over at the beginning to give himself the proper motivation. It’s truly dazzling and energizing.
While there is some evidence that Doc does genuinely care for Baby, there are two men in this film who mean him harm. One is Bats, played crazy, charming and menacing by Jamie Foxx. He doesn’t trust anybody, especially someone who isn’t as pumped up on his own testosterone as he is. Bats is a constant threat, even when he’s not in the room. Even after Baby pays off his debt to Doc, Doc blackmails him into coming back one last time on a job that seems impossible. And it’s Bats who suspects Baby’s heart isn’t in the work for said heist. Indeed it isn’t. Instead, it’s with the aforementioned waitress, Debora (Lily James of CINDERELLA), who sings like a caged bird desperate to be released. In other words, Debora reminds Baby of his beloved mother, who, it turns out, once worked in the same diner.
The other man gunning for Baby is Buddy (Jon Hamm), who at first is more amused by the quiet driver than anything. He’s more obsessed with his lady love Darling (Eiza Gonzalez of “From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series”), and doesn’t give Baby much thought until he commits an act of betrayal with dire consequences for the heist and the crew. Then Buddy decides that Baby not only needs to die; he needs to suffer first, sending Buddy gunning for both Baby and Debora. Hamm has never been this raw and unflinchingly evil before, and it’s a great, unfiltered turn.
Make no mistake, Wright loves his films R-rated, and BABY DRIVER has enough bad language and bloody violence for a couple of movies. But what it really has is great ideas—wrapping a solid heist and car porn story in a musical environment is bold and even a bit reckless. But he knows how to make this work (no special effects for the car chases, music playing on the set so action choreography would be easier, etc.), and the film does everything in its power to sell you on this insane concept. Throw in a couple of great supporting roles from Jon Bernthal and Paul Williams, and you’ve got yourself a killer piece of filmmaking that stands up to repeat viewing (I’ve seen it twice now).
Elgort may not seem like the obvious choice to play a criminal, but Baby needs to be different things to different people, and Elgort plays sweet and sensitive as convincingly as he does focused and fearless. His range has never been tested quite like this before, but he delivers. There’s something both timeless and modern about the performance and the film. Wright’s encyclopedic knowledge of classic cinema takes him to a certain point in all of his movies, allowing his awareness of what feels funky-fresh-dope to push things into entertainment overdrive. Above all other things, BABY DRIVER is unfiltered entertainment, and sometimes that’s exactly what the Doc ordered.