Edgar Wright’s latest film isn’t getting enough credit for its strong storytelling.
Amid the showers of deserved praise falling on Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, a certain set of backhanded compliments appears over and over. The film is praised for its visual craftsmanship, its exuberant style, its “pure cinema” dynamism. Such compliments are true, of course, but they imply that Baby Driver is a kind of feature-length music video — a masterful exercise, but without substance or emotional heft. This view is of a piece with the more pervasive misconception that “genre films” are where meaning goes to die. To label a film like Baby Driver an “action film,” for instance, tacitly limits its meaning to mere visceral thrills. On the contrary, film genres render meanings so deep that they’ve permeated the very fabric of the medium. And Baby Driver, steeped in genre and style though it may be, should be praised as much for its theme and characterization as for its tire-screeching car chases.
It’s worth noting at the outset that nearly all films are, in some sense, action films. Cinema does not photograph thought (at least not in a literal sense), and narrative does not run on stagnation. It’s only through actions, large or small, violent or tender, that characters reveal themselves in a story. So it is no concession to admit that Baby Driver is every bit the action film that critics have labeled it. But unlike many of its peers in the action genre, Baby Driver takes seriously the notion that all action should be an extension of character — right down to the spectacular chases and gunfights. Baby’s virtuosic driving and compulsive self-soundtracking are not just excuses for eye-popping choreography; they’re at the heart of the trauma and conflict that define his character.
The trauma, we learn, is that Baby was in a car accident with his parents as a child, leaving him orphaned and afflicted by tinnitus. The orphaned hero is, of course, a staple of genre cinema, as is the car accident flashback, but Wright’s spin here adds an extra level of poignancy. The qualities in Baby that we’ve come to view as unassailably cool (his driving and music-listening) are now revealed to be expressions of his vulnerability. In each subsequent chase scene, we’re not only thrilled but also touched, reflecting on why Baby might have gotten so damn good behind the wheel. The driving and music are his way of exerting control over a childhood trauma that continues to haunt him, physically and psychologically. With each death-defying turn and acceleration, we’re reminded of the deaths he couldn’t prevent.
If this still sounds a bit like an obligatory, generic backstory, consider the other function music serves for Baby. Stuck as an innocent working for criminals as a getaway driver, Baby syncs his every move during heists to a song and makes remix tapes out of the sounds and sayings he hears on the job. As Wright put it recently in an interview with Birth.Movies.Death., “they’re his way of dealing with the guilt of what he’s doing by mythologizing himself.” By soundtracking the heists and making remix out of what he hears, Baby is transforming an unsatisfactory reality by enlivening it and giving it meaning. He is, in a way, turning his life into a film — a genre film, in which the dark and dreary realities of the world are transmuted into shades of beauty and cool.
Wright has confessed to doing much the same thing in his own life. It’s at the center of why and how he makes movies. Take Shaun of the Dead, in which a schlubby electronics salesman is transformed into a hero when he suddenly finds himself inside a zombie film. Likewise for Hott Fuzz, in which a frustrated policeman is given meaning by a murderous conspiracy in the town he’s assigned to. This is what films,and genre films, in particular, do: they give us narratives we can project ourselves into, elevating our experience beyond the humdrum of reality. In other words, we use genre films the way Baby uses music.
Wright puts it this way: “I want to have some sort of sort of control over my life by sound-tracking my every day. A lot of people use music as a means of escape — like, for instance, if you work at a shit job, or you have to take a train and two buses during your daily commute, at least you have some control over what’s going on in your ears, you know? So, I like taking ideas like that and stretching them out to a dramatic extent.”
This principle extends to the entire visual design of the film, which is at once lush with artifice and utterly grounded. Everything is familiar enough to project yourself into and yet heightened enough to bring the story to the archetypal plane. Locations like Baby’s cluttered apartment and the neon-lit diner where Deborah works are just grounded enough to feel real but steeped in just enough nostalgia to make the story feel like a fairy tale. The same could be said of the characters, who are all only slightly larger than life. Take the villainous Buddy, played by Jon Hamm. At first glance, he’s the classic bad guy: drug-addled, tattooed, unhinged. But Wright makes a point to give him a backstory as well: he was a one-time Wall Street trader, driven to crime by an addiction to cocaine. The woman for whom he now kills on a whim is, in fact, a stripper for whom he left his wife and children. Such a story is, if not plausible, at least plausible enough to situate the film in a recognizable world.
Seen in this way, all of Baby Driver’s stylistic flourishes are extensions of theme. It is a film about the way we use style — in genre, in music, in driving a car — to “mythologize” our lives. But more than just providing escape, style provides a direction, an aspiration to strive toward, a life steeped in meaning. If you’re anything like me, you probably left Baby Driver with an extra skip in your step, humming the songs you just heard in the theatre. And that’s where, to deploy a particularly apt cliche, the rubber meets the road. All the excitement and meaning that genre films provide, Baby Driver suggests, are never more than a song and a stretch of road away.