Baby (Ansel Elgort) flips through channels with his deaf-mute stepfather asleep next to him, shifting past the likes of Monster’s Inc. and Fight Club; the sort of films that ornate late-night cable’s movie lineups ad nauseam. But as was the case with Edgar Wright’s seminal Shaun of the Dead (where a character mindlessly flips through channels as the images’ collective message spells out the looming zombie threat outside), what’s on television, especially Wright’s television, tends to speak to something a bit more specific. And while the clip of Monster’s Inc. would be directly referenced later in Baby Driver, it’s the clip pulled from Fight Club that echoes most conspicuously: it’s the scene where Brad Pitt’s character curtly inquires about how [being clever] is working out for Edward Norton’s character. It’s an intriguing scene to pull from, bluntly calling to question: how’s being clever working out for Edgar Wright?
Wright’s high-profile dismissal from a particular cinematic universe may have prompted him to take his act to an outskirt nebula, but it’s not as if he hasn’t attracted an appealing cadre of stars for Baby Driver. The film involves an alternating heist crew organized by Doc (Kevin Spacey) featuring the familiar faces of Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, and others. The constant: their earbud-donning driver Baby. Paying off an extensive debt, Baby is just one job away from freeing himself from Doc’s servitude. And when Baby meets Debora (Lily James), his impending retirement conjures images of driving away with the woman he loves. As it were, things get increasingly complicated, ascribing to the axiom that the worse one’s past, the worse your present will be.
Wright has never been one to shy away from his influences and Baby Driver is no different in its direct shout-outs to the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Drive, The Driver, Heat, Le Samourai, Point Break, etc. But what I found most intriguing about the film, and what distinguishes Wright from virtually any working filmmaker today, is his fluid formal effervesce, particularly in how he utilizes his spatial setting. Only one other film in recent memory, Jacob Krupnick’s Girl Walk // All Day, has demonstrated such an immersive syntax where its characters move harmoniously within their environment. Take the opening credits of Baby Driver, a long take that sees Baby make his way to a local coffee shop. Wright frames Elgort’s lithe physique in a medium shot, moving in and out on him as he dodges Atlanta traffic, swaggering to Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” that plays over the soundscape. It’s hypnotic, where Wright will overwhelm your senses with the percussive vibrancy that comes with his melding of image, sound, and movement.
Thematically, Baby Driver charts familiar terrain with an unspoken melancholy below its glossy surface. It’s reminiscent of Steve De Jarnatt’s 80s cult object, Miracle Mile, where the looming threat of the end of the world persuades a musician to become a hero as he fights for his love. Baby Driver sees the promising beginnings of a new future crumble as a heist goes wrong. There’s an apocalyptic quality in how Baby attempts to evade authorities and criminals alike, all as he tries to maintain his inherently virtuous moral code. As Baby Driver comes to a close, we understand the vitality of maintaining that measure of humanism even as you’re confronted with certain doom. It’s been the raison d'etre of all of Edgar Wright’s filmography, as you’re invited to imagine enduring the unendurable, whether it be a breakup in Shaun of the Dead, the impossible contest between progressive and conservative idealogies in Hot Fuzz, confronting your partner’s past in Scott Pilgrim, or negotiating the present with your past in The World’s End.
Yet Wright’s films rarely despair. His films may summon moments of profound sadness but they’re typically imbued with an unfaltering human quality. As it was detailed in Scott Pilgrim, Wright’s characters are perpetually on a quest for self-respect, with Baby Driver being no different. With all these familiar and empathetic qualities, Wright heightens our engagement with a kind of formal energy that’s unlike any other filmmaker working today. Being clever, as it were, has its sacrifices and one needs to look no further than the cumulative gross of his four films. But the integrity of Wright’s filmmaking, from Shaun of the Dead to Baby Driver, remains uncompromised. This is popcorn cinema of the highest order.