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Rhythm is what ties everything in this movie together. Rhythm defines Edgar Wright’s style.

Edgar Wright had a disappointing couple of years, I think. Getting over all that work he put into Ant-Man must have been rough but I’m so glad it meant that this movie, which Wright first developed in the 90’s, got to exist. As pointed out elsewhere, Wright might have a little Marvel still stuck in his teeth but ultimately I think everybody is going to agree that he hasn’t lost a step. Baby Driver is full of the inventive filmmaking and action he’s known for while also being vastly different from his other movies.

What most people are saying about Baby Driver is how fun and entertaining it is. I’ll echo that while also adding that it’s a surprisingly dark and consequence-laden movie. Wright has always been deft with tonal shifts and messing with genre conventions and while Baby Driver does balance a light-hearted romantic tone with some heavier elements, it’s actually kind of refreshingly straightforward when it comes to its genre. Wright has made his version of a Michael Mann film in a film where every character thinks they are in their own movie. Wright’s genius here is that he’s making all those movies by referencing, recycling, nodding, and reinventing parts of them.

I think Baby Driver is destined to be a crowd-pleaser. There’s too much to like about it and it’s kind of universally appealing, I think. Part of that is the really joyous way it uses music, and part of it is just that everybody loves a crime movie. If there are any complaints to be made, they’ll probably arise from the nuts and bolts mechanics of the story and its somewhat misleading structure. The last act will not fully work for everyone, but I think it’s not going to really damage anyone’s enjoyment of the movie overall. I’ll talk about these issues later, but I really think they are likely to end up being footnotes on a masterpiece.

SPOILERS RACING BY!

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Artist and medium.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a slick kid driver working for Doc (Kevin Spacey), an arch fixer who never works with the same crew twice but always uses his favorite driver, his lucky charm, the whiz kid who owes him and, it turns out, softens him. Baby’s genius is his rhythm, which is out of sync with everyone around him (I wonder how much Wright feels like Baby as a filmmaker) but with which he wields both a mighty power and a conscience-insulating separation from the consequences of the work he’s doing. Those consequences and whether Baby can really avoid them is a major theme of the movie. It’s a theme that actually goes past the titular character to touch every other character, all of whom have to face the consequences of who they are, what they do, and how they perceive themselves.

In telling this story, Wright shows a wonderful sense of both brevity and depth while creating a cast of remarkable characters. They all get stuff to do and say that tells us who they are. No one in this movie is replaceable or interchangeable. If you have a speaking line in Baby Driver, Wright takes the time to give you a character whether through what’s on the page or through directorial and performance techniques. Since all the criminals in this movie think they are living their own movies, a theme I’ll return to again and again here, this seems especially challenging and yet Wright makes it look easy.

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Everybody is fascinated, mystified, agitated, fixated on Baby.

While anticipating the last job before he gets free of his debt to Doc and can do something more honest, Baby meets Debora (Lily James) who provides an anchor to the life past the one he’s living. Nothing more classic than cashing all that criminality in for the love of a good woman, but Wright is wise to not focus just on Debora. Baby has a few additional reasons to give it all up. His foster father Joe (CJ Jones), who he looks after and adores, and the memory of his mother also beckon him toward something better.

This is a good time to mention performances, by the way. A lot of people are talking about the pleasant surprise Ansel Elgort is (nothing else he’s done even comes close to this). While this is true, I want to throw some love to Lily James who just destroys in this role. She imbues Debora with just foolhardy young lust to belie the diner damsel character she’s playing for herself and Baby. There’s a sensuality in James’s movements, here constant dancing and swaying, that informs the character beyond the tropes it depends on. The two of them had great chemistry and as alive as this movie is, it’s probably most alive when Elgort and James share the screen.

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D’awwwwww.

Like a sweeter, less disturbed version of Ryan Gosling’s similarly titular character from Drive (and honestly, what a double bill these two movies are), Baby has peculiarities beyond his preoccupation with music. These peculiarities are part of what makes him good at what he does. His tinnitus, which he drowns out with music, is what connects him both to his past and to his gifts behind the wheel. He’s quiet and kind of… off. Whether there’s a dangerous, relentless person hidden beneath the laconic and almost aggressively innocent (some would say cute) exterior is a question Wright takes much longer to answer than Nicolas Winding-Refn did. One of the things that makes these movies fun to compare is that while Drive is much darker and much more interested in unpacking the fucked up underbelly of action cinema, Baby Driver revels in it.

Just as interesting is the way either film ends. Throughout Baby Driver, consequences keep showing up to remind everybody that life is not a movie. Baby doesn’t get a movie ending because of those consequences, and the way the last few minutes of the movie kind of belabor this point will be frustrating for some (definitely was for me, almost ruined the movie), the idea still comes across that Baby’s criminality and the people he’s become surrounded with are not just some fun escape he can leave behind whenever. In contrast, Gosling’s character in Drive definitely does get a movie ending. He drives off into the sunset, wounded (probably fatally) but satisfying the elemental requirements of the movie he thinks he’s living in.

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Speaking of nods to Drive

Though he gets a glimpse of life on the other side of Doc, Baby is called back in (this time with a crew we’ve seen before) and the compartmentalization he’s managed for however many years starts to fall apart. Between the aggressive attention of Bats (Jamie Foxx), the false friendship of Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and the twisted mentorship/codependence of Doc, Baby is kind of stuck in shit and unable to get himself out without making an even bigger mess. One of the refreshing things about Baby Driver and its occasional defiance of genre conventions is that Baby doesn’t have any grand plan to get himself out. He’s just winging it like the dumb kid he’s invented to protect himself from the hardened criminal world he doesn’t belong in… and it comes back to bite him in the ass big time. He records conversations but this pays off in a way so specific and so far from what you might expect that it’s almost jarring. I guess it’s fair to say that a lot of the setups in this movie pay off in unexpected ways and mileage on enjoying the movie might depend a lot on your comfort with that. Worth noting.

Once the third act gets going, Baby makes one desperate, consequence-laden move after another. His actions reveal the lie of the movie everybody respectively thinks they are in. Bats thinks he’s Joe Pesci, Doc thinks he’s Danny Ocean by way of 1940’s noir prattle (and Spacey amusingly infuses his performance with frustration that no one else is in the same movie as Doc is), Buddy and Darling think they’re in Heat remixed with Bonnie and Clyde while Debora thinks she’s in West Side Story. This all works. This is all there to reward audiences that love movies as much as Edgar Wright does. There’s probably even more in there than I am noting here and it’s so much fun to think about.

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Hamm being the real menace, in the end, is something I’ve gone back and forth on.

At first I thought Buddy being the big threat in the end was a clunky move. A Kansas City Shuffle that may not have been properly motivated since it at first relies on a lack of communication. Baby and Buddy going toe to toe is kind of tragic, but I’ve come around to thinking this is entirely intentional and thematically on point. Baby has to pick up a gun and defend himself while also facing up to who he’s become underneath the lie of the movie he thinks he’s in (which is called Baby Driver). Buddy is not such a bad guy, even if he is kind of the bad guy. He’s lashing out in grief and anger and it’s kind of understandable in the end. Both men are reacting to the realization of consequences. Of course the Bonnie and Clyde shit was going to get one or both of Buddy and Darling killed. Of course Baby is going to have to, as people mention to him in one way or another throughout the movie, get his hands dirty. Interestingly, not every character’s realization is about how bad or ruthless they are. Baby ultimately maintains the core goodness of his character, I think, while Doc becomes downright heroic when he chooses loyalty to Baby over his own self-image as a calculating, ruthless mastermind. Doc’s big gesture is probably one of my favorite scenes in the movie, even though I think we could all see it coming a mile off. The beauty of performance in this movie is that the signs and portents of things to come are all present for those paying attention. Nothing is left field, even if your first instinct is that it seems to be.

The capstone on how the movie sets up and pays off is of course its ending. The ending drags out the idea that Baby and Debora are not destined to ride off into the sunset and live out their none-plan to “drive a car they can’t afford” and never stop. The cops bust Baby and he gets a nickel stretch, which maybe he will only serve some of. The flip side of the consequences he’s facing is that there are also consequences for his good deeds, or the way he isn’t as shitty about crime as he could have been or as others were. People defend him, or at least contextualize his actions in a way that supports his fundamentally good character. As a result, an ending where Baby is in jail and fantasizing about reuniting with Debora somehow doesn’t feel like as much of a downer as it might first appear.

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The ugliness Baby briefly indulges feels like a mask rather than the true center of the character.

I had to take a minute with that ending. I thought it was way too simultaneously downbeat and fantastical to work. My wife said when he sees Debora with a sparkling 1950’s convertible caddy, of course it’s too good to be true. That’s what he’s holding on to. But that still strikes me as somewhat bizarre in a movie that’s about the collision between the fantasies we erect around ourselves and the reality of consequence based on our actions. If the prison ending is about ramming home a somewhat moralistic point about consequences, why then make your final shot a fantasy?

There’s an interesting contradiction there, and it’s also present in the cinematic language of the scene. Earlier, we see a similar fantasy Baby is presumably having about Debora and it’s shot in black and white. In the final scene, it starts black and white and color suddenly washes in as if we’re meant to understand that while this seems like a fantasy, it’s actually reality. It still feels pretty unrealistic even within the parameters of this movie, but the ambiguity is intriguing. I mean, Wright could have easily given this movie an ending that completely closes the book and leaves nothing to chew on. The movie practically begs for that, or for the more simple ambiguity of Drive. Instead, we get an ending that is perplexing and maybe even a little frustrating (unless you don’t think about it and just take it at face value, I guess). At the end of the day, I’m pretty satisfied with an ending that you can chew on, even if it’s not quite the triumphant payoff that it feels like the movie as a whole is hurtling toward.

Let me know what you make of it.

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