The technical sophistication of Edgar Wright’s artistry reaches new heights with the heist-cum-musical Baby Driver, which fully weds the filmmaker’s signature flair for rapid but precise editing patterns with his propensity for carefully chosen soundtracks. As robbers carry out a bank job in the opening scene, the camera stays with wheelman Baby (Ansel Elgort) as he listens to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms,” swaying to the melody and even popping the windshield wipers on the downbeats. The camera moves with Baby’s taps and grooves, with the cuts likewise timed on the song’s twos and fours, so as to add kinetic energy to images of the driver simply waiting for his crew to leave the bank. In the ensuing chase, this synthesis of on-screen movement, editing, and musical timing coalesces into a balletic tour de force, complete with wry visual gags like Baby hiding among cars of a similar color and make on the highway so as to dupe a police helicopter.
Compared to the grid layout of so many metropolises, Atlanta’s streets were constructed around largely defunct railroad lines, leaving thickets of curved and angular intersections and dead ends, all hemmed in by four intersecting interstates that, when viewed on a map, look suspiciously like the anarchy symbol. Making a car-chase movie in the bottleneck capital of the United States is like crafting a submarine thriller in Lake Tahoe: theoretically possible but so fundamentally constrained as to be absurd. Wright uses this to his advantage, however, structuring his chases around necessary drifts and sharp turns that better fit the soundtrack’s beats. As in the Toronto-set Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, the director takes a tax-break shooting location on its own terms, exploring the idiosyncrasies of a city’s unique construction.
The gnarled schematic of Atlanta’s streets leads to vehicular interactions between Baby, cop cars, and civilian obstacles that play out as delicate dances more than wanton carnage. Each major sequence in Baby Driver has a distinct sense of choreography to match the disparate styles of the soundtrack’s songs, which range from the Damned’s caterwauling punk to the anthemic roar of Golden Earring’s “Radar Love.” The prevalence of the songs is justified by Baby’s long-standing tinnitus affliction, a scar of a tragic childhood accident that’s clouded his head in more ways than one.
Wright’s generosity with actors is often undervalued. Elgort, in what should be star-making performance, doesn’t use Baby’s musical self-therapy as a stylistic crutch, but rather adds shades to a character type that skews toward dour hollowness, bringing context to Baby’s taciturn nature. The actor also gives the character a warm, polite side that further distances him from the likes of Ryan Gosling’s stultifyingly self-serious protagonist from Drive. When Baby falls for a diner waitress named Debora (Lily James), his awkward, intermittently smooth flirtations are genuinely charming.
The rest of the cast acquits themselves equally well. James plays Debora with such an old-school spark of cheerfully hokey innocence that, when paired with her server outfit, makes the character look like she moved to Atlanta after working the Double R Diner in Twin Peaks. Criminal ringleader Doc (Kevin Spacey) is a calm professional who never asks questions that aren’t rhetorical and never fails to remind anyone that his orders are backed up with vague allusions to consequences for failure. Spacey drawls over Doc’s curt shutdowns of any backtalk from his crews, reserving his most acidic insinuations for Baby, who is, true to template, hoping to get out of this hard life. Most surprising, though, is Bats (Jamie Foxx), the requisite psychopath among the robbers. Bats delights in mayhem, but Foxx deepens this two-dimensional type with glimpses of the man’s shrewd calculation and ability to read people. In the end, Bats frequently unsettles his colleagues less for his trigger finger than his cutting, accurate psychological jabs.
Such subtle but complicating tweaks of genre formula orient Baby Driver less around Wright’s considerable aesthetic flash and more onto small insights of character-based drama. Consider Buddy (Jon Hamm), a robber whose chummy interactions give him an affability that cracks when anyone so much as looks funny at his wife, Darling (Eiza González), his warm smiles freezing in the blink of an eye and lending his veneer of friendliness an unsettling rage even scarier than Bats’s more consistent violence. There are also moments of almost unbearably genuine tenderness, most visible in the interactions between Baby and his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), whose admonishments against Baby’s profession are softened by looks of knowing sympathy and unconditional love for the boy.
With its music-dependent protagonist blasting away the physical reminder of childhood trauma, Baby Driver literalizes Wright’s fascination with people’s emotional overreliance on pop culture as a cover for arrested development. Yet the film approaches the theme from a different angle, presenting in Baby not a stunted man-child, but a boy forced to grow up too soon, who’s on a quest for innocence rather than one to shed it. This flipped dynamic stresses the film’s scenes of softer introspection, as evidenced by the equal prominence of gentle soundtrack choices like the gossamer filigrees of Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” alongside heart-pumping jams. Befitting a director so preoccupied with the necessity to grow while never losing sight of one’s benign obsessions, Wright continues to hone his skills. He’s no longer the idol-aping synthesist of the VCR Generation. Now, he looks increasingly like the most original action filmmaker of his generation.