This story contains major plot spoilers for Baby Driver.
The title character of Walter Hill’s 1978 classic heist movie The Driver might as well be making his entrance from the pits of hell. The opening shot of the movie sees Ryan O’Neal rise into focus, riding a one-man valet elevator in a parking garage, as the dirge-like score hums atonally. The Driver doesn’t have a name—nobody in the film does—and he barely has a personality. He’s just a wraith behind the wheels, leading the cops on a grim chase through the streets of Los Angeles on behalf of his bank-robber clients. The opening set-piece of The Driver is nearly wordless; it’s just a cacophony of squealing tires and police sirens, ending with the driver escaping and vanishing into the night.
The Driver is one of many touchstones the director Edgar Wright has cited as an inspiration for his new film Baby Driver. Like all of Wright’s works, the movie wears its influences openly, indulging in hat-tips and visual calling cards. But unlike his previous horror-comedy Shaun of the Dead, or the zany action flick Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver isn’t a mash-up that takes one genre and mixes in self-referential laughs to tell a story about Gen Xers struggling to grow up. Baby Driver is, in its plotting, a straightforward heist flick, opening in almost exactly the same way The Driver does—with a dialogue-free car chase featuring the taciturn, sunglasses-wearing Baby (Ansel Elgort) driving his bank-robber buddies out of the police’s grasp.
The key difference is the mood, mostly indicated by the music: Baby Driver (reviewed by my colleague Christopher Orr here) is set to a bouncy, eclectic soundtrack, hand-picked by Wright, that is constantly playing in Baby’s earbuds (he has a diverse collection of iPods) as he roars through the motorways of Atlanta. While his crew wreaks havoc at the bank they’re robbing, Baby sits in the car, lip-syncing gleefully to “Bellbottoms” by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The ensuing chase with the cops is just like The Driver’s—all squealing tires and blaring sirens, no talking—but when set to pop music, it becomes a free-spirited romp.
Rather than create a knowing comedy out of his favorite genre films, Wright makes Baby Driver a concentrated caper flick. The movie is wrapped up in many of the visual hallmarks of the genre, but it also, unusually, hinges on its protagonist’s moral growth—his evolution from willing stooge to reluctant hero. His youth aside, Baby looks just like the heartless anti-heroes of films like Heat, Reservoir Dogs, Vanishing Point, and The Italian Job; early on, when the bank robber Griff (Jon Bernthal) snatches the sunglasses off his face, Baby immediately replaces them with a different pair. He lives a largely anonymous life, haunting the diner his dead mother used to work at and waiting for his boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) to call him for another job.
But while the heist movies Wright adores usually end with the anti-hero either driving off into the unknown, or dying in a hail of gunfire, Baby Driver sees Baby ultimately betraying his criminal colleagues, killing the two deadliest (played by Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm), serving time in prison, and eventually getting released into the arms of his true love Debora (Lily James). The film has been dismissed by some critics as a stylish, but empty, genre exercise by Wright. But I think he’s quite boldly trying to do two compelling things at once: hold true to the cool, detached iconography of the getaway-driver movie, while layering in a surprising, but heartfelt, moral transformation.
That’s why the earbuds are so crucial. They aren’t just Wright’s excuse to jazz up the car chases and turn them into toe-tapping musical sequences. Right from the opening shots, Baby is doggedly trying to block out the nasty mayhem around him (in addition to his tinnitus). As he’s enthusiastically lip-syncing to “Bellbottoms,” he throws a couple of glances over his shoulder at the bank, where Griff is aggressively firing his shotgun into the air. Later in the film, when Doc kills JD (Lanny Joon) for screwing up a heist, Baby has to dispose of the car with his body in it, a task he performs while listening to the Commodores’ “Easy” (a song he associates with his dead mother).
Baby’s habit of recording conversations he overhears (one that eventually gets him into trouble) feels like a similar way of blinkering out the bleakness. He literally steals the dialogue of the heartless criminals he works with and transforms it into sunny dance music, remixing it with his home-DJ kit. Eventually, he can no longer ignore the monstrousness surrounding him, partly because of the aggressively psychotic Bats (Foxx, wonderfully demented) and the berserker rage of Buddy (Hamm, who lets completely loose in the film’s final act), and partly because of his love for Debora and his need to protect his kindly foster father Joseph (CJ Jones).
So many heist movies revolve around their dispassionate protagonists’ professionalism, and the chaos that ensues when they snap in some way. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) of Heat meets his downfall when he pursues a personal vendetta against a former colleague who betrayed him. Reservoir Dogs ends in a bloodbath because of the unpredictable, psychotic Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen). The nameless hero of Drive, the director Nicolas Winding Refn’s own much darker homage to The Driver, loses his way when he kills someone (brutally, with a hammer) to defend the woman he loves.
In Baby Driver, when Baby finally breaks, it’s because he can’t drown things out any longer. As Doc’s crew is robbing a post office, Baby dissuades one of its employees from going inside, wanting to spare her from the violence; she instead summons a security guard, and everything goes south from there. Rather than spiriting the robbers away, Baby drives his car straight into a truck, deliberately killing Bats and sabotaging their getaway. His planned escape with Debora ends with him surrendering to the police, but before then, the mere sight of the couple is enough to convince Doc not to kill them. “I was in love once,” he commiserates, before meeting his own grisly end trying to save them from Buddy.
Wright has talked about Baby’s moral shift being the crux of his movie. His appearance on Amy Nicholson’s podcast The Canon, where they discuss The Driver, is essential listening for any die-hard fan of the director. Wright has long made films about people growing up and learning how to be adults—there’s the “Cornetto trilogy” he made with the actor and co-writer Simon Pegg, and his video-game-generation masterpiece Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But Baby Driver, the first film he’s written by himself, is concerned with a more elemental character arc, befitting the stripped-down world of the heist movie. Viewers are embracing the story’s kinetic thrills and sense of humor, but equally praiseworthy is Wright’s ambitious effort to take his genre-comedy sensibility to a meaningful new level.