Film Review: Edgar Wright is a slave to the rhythm in Baby Driver (USA, 2017)

It’s obvious that great care and thought was put into Baby Driver; we should have expected nothing less from visionary Director Edgar Wright, he who has brought us incredibly unique films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Shaun of the Dead in the past. With the idea snowballing in his head for decades, road-tested with a music video and teased through the years, Wright has finally sketched his high-concept music-action onto the big screen. The result is a visually sharp, fluid and thrilling piece which ebbs and flows like the soulful breaks which are in constant rotation on Baby’s (Ansel Elgort) collection of iPods. It’s high-octane, expertly choreographed entertainment with a beautifully directed soundtrack, if nothing else.

Musical action sequences are at the core of Baby Driver, although Wright’s concept isn’t kept as consistent as one might have expected. At some points Elgort is tasked with moving Baby to the undeniable rhythm of vintage cuts by the likes of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Queen, but at others it’s almost as if Wright couldn’t find a way to make the idea work, subtracting the score to give us a straight-shooting, eye-popping crime caper carried by an A-list supporting cast of campy Tarantino caricatures. The concept flows in and out of the film in a similar way to last year’s La La Land.

The story is simple at first, but layered with sincerity. Elgort balances Baby well for the most part, though there are times when the young actor appears stiff and nowhere near as fluid and rhythmic as the songs which carry him, quite literally, through life. Much more natural on screen are the gravelly bank robbers who work under the direction of Kevin Spacey’s Doc, a menacing crime boss with random pops of compassion. Said robbers are often the scene-stealing archetypes the film needs them to be, juxtaposed against the relatively innocent and benevolent Baby, mistakenly treating the protagonist like an out-of-depth outcast despite his inhuman and always-on-beat getaway driving.

Such on-screen electricity is to be expected with this kind of stellar cast: Jon Hamm gets to munch through the most material as sly crim’ Buddy, constantly playing off his equally breezy wife Darling (the talented and incredibly witty Eiza González) and an unspoken rivalry with loose-cannon Bats (a characteristically charming Jamie Foxx). Even Jon Bernthal gets a role as part of this rag-tag group of bank robbers, playing his pigeon-holed cocky bad guy role before oddly disappearing just as fast.

Dialogue between characters is kinetic and always on the pulse, but Wright saves most of his wit for the musical action sequences, fueling Baby with sonic inspiration in much the same way as a gym junkie is energised by their purpose-selected playlist. This could have easily felt gimmicky and contrived had the script not been packed with plenty of substance, backing Baby’s peculiar ways with a genuinely sympathetic story, revealed in layers, of how as a kid he developed chronic tinnitus from being in the same car crash which killed both his parents. Music is not just a way to drown out the constant ringing for Baby, also serving to mask the painful memories directly sparked by the condition. It doesn’t help that he has fallen for a girl (Lily James) who reminds him of his mother (it also doesn’t help that Elgort and James are in serious need of some on-screen chemistry that lasts beyond their first meeting).

Wright is admirable in the way he uses action to inform the character, and conversely uses character to provide further context for the action. The film is always dynamic in that sense, constantly unfolding in ways that are both logical and surprising. There’s one particular scene towards the end when Baby, out of necessity, hijacks a car from an elderly lady, though he isn’t as quick to just speed off because he’s desperately and frantically fumbling through the radio stations, trying to dial in the exact beat which will give him the energy he needs to keep going. It’s a touching, human moment and one of the few that Elgort sells perfectly.

If this was a superhero film – which it very well could be – Baby’s weakness is that he is completely vulnerable without a constant playlist; take his headphones away and he melts into a kid overwhelmed by his condition, his predicament, and his past.

There’s a lot of potential to comment on music and the practical power it holds for the listener; people who regularly curate their own “life soundtracks” will most definitely find plenty endearing about Baby and his special relationship to sound. Though there’s not nearly enough time to slow down and focus on this dynamism music can bring into our lives. That’s nowhere near a mark against Baby Driver either; Wright had a vision and he executes it exceptionally well – well, maybe until the third act – but hopefully Baby Driver’s success isn’t the last we’ve seen of this integral relationship of music, drama and action.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Baby Driver is out in Australian cinemas Thursday 13th July.