Skip to main content

He’s a good kid, and a devil behind the wheel.

Baby Driver
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Pure cinema. There are plenty of directors who engage in superficial flash and fizz (Danny Boyle or JJ Abrams, for example) but relatively few who actually come to the medium from a root, core level, visually. I’m slightly loathe to compare Edgar Wright with the illustrious likes of Sergio Leone and Brian De Palma, partly because they’re playing in largely different genre sandpits, partly because I don’t think Wright has yet made something that compares to their best work, but he operates from a similar sensibility: fashioning a movie foremost through image, supported by the soundtrack, and then, trailing a distant third, comes dialogue. Baby Driver is his most complete approximation of that impulse to date.


Wright is very much a pop culture magpie, occupying a distinctive space to the more operatic posturing of the aforementioned Leone or De Palma, but the way in which Baby Driver utilises score to inform the scene or sequence, and the grander palette of the movie itself, corresponds entirely to Leone’s marriage to Ennio Morricone, or De Palma’s to Pino Donaggio (and later Morricone). And it’s a different thing to Tarantino, who has become increasingly adept cinematically over the years; for him, the word is at least as important as the image (notably, when he exchanged vows with Morricone, it was 50-50 through appropriating existing tracks).


Baby Driver puts in perspective the problems with The World’s End, a resounding disappointment after Wright’s first two comedy (horror and action genre respectively) spins with Simon Pegg; it represented a retreat, to safer, familiar ground, and the spark that fuelled their previous collaborations had fizzled. I wasn’t overly impressed by Scott Pilgrim vs The World at first sight, but it has grown on me since, and Baby Driver, which Wright has had in his head for two decades, and which can be seen in embryo form in the Mint Royale Blue Song video that shows up briefly in the movie, represents the next step on from this, distilling a movie to its motive essence while forsaking theatrical devices as much as possible.


It will be interesting to see if Wright subsequently retreats into something less distinctive, but the confident manner in which he has designed and written Baby Driver suggests otherwise. Sure, one might choose to reduce the movie in summary to an extended pop video, but that would be to underestimate how well it also works as a character drama (which it is, in a heightened way, for all that it is frequently very funny, or elicits laughs for its sheer audacity), and how Wright’s choices on the soundtrack fuse with the material in a diegetic manner not even seen with Tarantino (the most obvious comparison in terms of a tendency to litter a picture with eclectic favourites from one’s personal music library).


Wright’s best foot forward in this regard is treating “young Mozart in a go-cart” Baby as all-but a silent movie character, so placing a distinctive onus on how the picture is staged and viewed, and how its characters interact with the lead. Baby appears passive or distracted by his own interior world, yet he’s gifted multitasker, possessed of sufficiently extraordinary “super” skills (his weakness also fuels his greatest strength, like Daredevil but on the other side of the law). He’s simultaneously supremely nerdy (OCD obsessiveness with regard to recording music) and unflappably cool (as an unassuming presence in a criminal milieu).


Ansel Elgort is possibly not destined to be nearly as singular in other material (I’ve also seen him in the Insurgents and The Fault in Our Stars where he’s fine, I guess), but he’s perfectly chosen here, non-descript enough to be a blank canvas for his director, allowing his fellow performers to hog the camera and steal the best lines, but with sufficient presence to make you care and become invested when it counts. I had a nag of concern during the first scene, where he begins acting out a similar accompaniment to the chosen tune (Bellbottoms by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) to Noel Fielding in the Mint Royale video but without the concordant flourish of a natural comedian, worried as I was that this would grow annoying very quickly if it was going to be par for the course. Instead, it really merely sets up his goofiness. Just as, conversely, if someone with definably comic chops had been handed the main role, it would likely have detracted from the heart of the piece.


That said, there are a few areas where Wright doesn’t wholly deliver. Most notably, the backstory concerning Baby’s mother (Sky Ferreira) and the tragedy that scars him. I can’t help feel the explanation for his tinnitus and permanently attached earphones would have been better covered by a simple soundbite, rather than the cloying, mawkish flashbacks Wright returns to as if he has been consuming a copy of Studio Screenwriting 101. You might argue these insights are needed to explain for his endearingly buoyant relationship with his deaf foster father (CJ Jones), but since you don’t really get a joined up one for it anyway, the movie could have done with leaving the substance of his mommy obsession to our imaginations.


Initially, I was a little surprised by the choice of ending, since Wright seemed to be heading for a clean get away, and more still because the actually execution is a little perfunctory, almost as if he had to be persuaded to go that way and his heart wasn’t really in it. Part of that may be the rest of the picture failing to leave one feeling it is instilling a moral, despite heavy foreshadowing like “One of these days, Baby, you’re gonna get blood on your hands”, so falling back an old Hollywood, “crime doesn’t pay” coda. But Wright has actually instituted a very measured progression to the picture, that one may or may not see as a commentary on the deleterious effects of detachment from reality, be it through computer games, movies, TV, music or any heightened, escapist state; the problem is that he sort of screws the pooch in the pay off. It’s a bit of a shrug, rather than a celebration.


In the first heist, Baby is in his element: everything runs perfectly, and he is safe in his own bubble of music. There are no consequences; it’s the ideal bloodless movie robbery. In the second, however, his equilibrium is upset as ugly reality intrudes. The sight of the corpse of a security guard throws his timing off, following which the escape becomes all about skin-of-the-teeth escalation, with Baby’s nose is rubbed in the brutal truth that others don’t share his values. And so the third, in which Baby is no longer supported by the “honourable” crutch for his misdeeds (his debt is paid off, albeit he is still under threat from Doc), where everything going wrong as he finds himself unable to countenance the gulf between moralities; he tips off the post office cashier, which leads to his decision to make an outright stand against his accomplices. This final sequence is particular illustrative of how coherently Wright has designed the picture; Baby loses his comfort blanket, his iPod, and is left fleeing the fuzz through the streets to the soundtrack of the ringing in his ears.


It occurred to me that the ending, with the released Baby reuniting with Debora (Lily James), is Wright riffing on Wild at Heart, although that picture’s depiction of justice was entirely oddball. This would dovetail with the undoubted influence of True Romance (in which the heroes do escape, only mostly unscathed). There’s very much a wish fulfilment fantasy going on in both Wright’s and Tarantino’s movies, in which a young geek type/director stand-in holds his own against the criminal underworld with the aid of his plucky fantasy girlfriend. Although, it has to be said, unlike Patricia Arquette in True Romance, Collins’ part amounts to little more than a cypher. And also, the fresh-facedness of Wright’s leads invokes a John Hughes movie – appropriate, given the title, which is more digestible the more you contextualise it, but still feels like a mistake that ran the danger of misleading undiscerning potential audiences as to the content of a picture that needed all the goodwill it could get to make an impact on the summer scene – rather than Tarantino (or Tony Scott).


Nevertheless, if Debora has little more than an object-of-attention role to play, Wright succeeds in investing us in the stakes of these two getting away. He fills out the rest of the cast out with vibrantly colourful characterisations, caricatures even, and lets dependable actors breathe life into them. Often, they are very funny – I’m torn as to whether I’d have liked to see more of Jon Bernthal’s Griff (“If you don’t see me again, it’s because I’m dead”) at the expense of Jamie Foxx’s Bats (I was half expecting the former to be brought back, so bringing bad luck on Doc’s rule never to work with exactly the same crew twice), although both fulfil virtually the same function. Only, Bats is more bats (“I’m the one with the mental problems in the crew. Position taken”).


And dislikeable, such that the point where the worm turns, and Baby gets his hands dirty, is the picture’s most cathartic moment (it’s also Wright learning from his De Palmas, or Hitchcocks, if you will, establishing the poles sticking out of the back of the truck a good five minutes before they’re called upon, to probing effect). I wasn’t too sure about Bats’ ability to divine chapter and verse on someone’s life story, however, since it seemed like a slightly clunky means of serving backstory.


Jon Hamm finally gets a movie role worth his salt in Buddy, with Wright utilising his alpha male credentials to shrewd effect, first putting him on Baby’s side, bonding with the babe over music choices and defending him against the less tolerant members of the crew(s), and then having him go ape when Baby torpedoes the robbery and Darling (Eliza González) gets killed. Again, Darling is less defined than her other half, although González still makes the part memorable. Her exit is maybe a little too ‘80s homage (a hail of squibs while firing two automatic weapons simultaneously), though.


As is Kevin Spacey’s, who does this kind of part in his sleep, only usually with a better wigmaker. He’s currently in danger of becoming little more than an Anthony Hopkins walk-on presence in pictures, reliable for showing up and providing some instant polish, but overfamiliar for doing exactly that kind of thing. I didn’t completely buy Doc’s change of heart at the end (“I was in love once too, you know”), or the decision to send him out in a blaze of gung ho bullets; it plays as if Wright reached the point of needing to close off loose ends and took the easiest option. That said, Doc’s interaction with his nephew (Brogan Hall), capable of casing a joint in the blink of an eye, is very funny.


Wright has professed to using Water Hill’s The Driver as reference material for shooting the chases in Baby Driver, and they’re flawlessly executed. Elsewhere, he’s clearly invoking Michael Mann’s Heat with the heavy firepower unleashed on urban streets. Perhaps the only action that feels a little standard-issue is the carpark garage finale with berserker Buddy. Not that it isn’t effective, but it doesn’t feel as if its doing anything sufficiently different to any other given action movie.


Elsewhere, the director flashes on more recognisable comic devices (the wrong Michael Myers masks) and references his love of The Phantom of the Paradise (Paul Williams as an arms dealer). He’s also adept scenes absent a supporting soundtrack; Baby’s attempt to take off on the night before the heist and the subsequent diner scene find Wright ratcheting up the tension to masterful effect. As for the soundtrack itself? It’s definitely one to be taken in context, where the positioning of the tunes, rather than necessarily the tunes themselves, are the key. And yes, eclectic is definitely the word.


Baby Driver might be the movie of the year to date, and it might well remain that way. It’s a definite sign that Edgar Wright is right to leave Cornetto trilogies behind him and explore his own thing solo. And, after the expensive flop of Scott Pilgrim, the playing to a familiar beat with The World’s End, and the disappointment of “creative differences” (Marvel being wankers) leading to his exiting Ant-Man, this came in on a budget-friendly scale (it looks far more expensive than it was) and should surely have studios knocking down his door for whatever he does next. If he keeps things inimitable, he shouldn’t put a foot wrong.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

  1. After all we work hard to raise good, responsible, equipped children, so when they start showing signs that they're ready to leave, we should rejoice and push them gently out of the nest. https://www.stoptheringing.org/do-headphones-cause-tinnitus/

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…