This is half an op-ed and half a review with spoilers throughout.
It’s been a while since I wrote anything about film; I just finished a three-year Film and English degree and felt like I was justifiably tired of writing words about pictures on a screen, about words from a script, transcribed from the imagineerings of someone else’s head that I could never properly realise, especially if they couldn’t fully realise them for themselves with a (-) dollar budget. But Baby Driver (2017 (it still feels odd typing that, like we’re getting ahead of ourselves)) has pulled me practically tantruming from my slump because there is simply far too much to glean from it to pass up the op for me or my blog.
Suffice it to say (after I’ve already said it but) I just want to add to the already triple-point conversation surrounding Edgar Wright’s latest masterweerk. If there is anything to add. Obviously, because it’s still in theaters there hasn’t been much close analysis of the movie, so not much ‘why’ or ‘how’ to explain the 9 tens and a 6 it’s currently throning over on Rotten Tomatoes. So it occurs to me that that might be my way into the conversation, and my way to add something a little special. Because while I definitely don’t have a photographic memory, I would say I have a bit of a cinematic one, and what I already got from Baby Driver is enough for a throwaway piece on a blog no one reads.
Wright is the king of reincorporation: watch one of Wright’s films and then watch it again and you’ll start to pick up on all the clues, liberally peppered throughout the beginning of the movie to telegraph the key plot points of the rest. For example, in 2004 horror-comedy classic Shaun of the Dead, Ed’s plan to help Shaun get over his breakup is essentially the bare-bones of the whole story:
‘You know what we should do tomorrow? Keep drinking. We’ll have a Bloody Mary first thing, have a bite at the King’s Head, couple at the Little Princess, stagger back here and BANG, back at the bar for shots…’
The pair do keep drinking; they sleep into a very quick, English apocalypse and wake up hungover to two zombified people in the back garden of their shared house- an obese man and a bloody woman with a name-tag: ‘Mary’. They drive to Shaun’s mum’s house where her second husband and Shaun’s stepdad, the ‘King’, gets bit; they go to Shaun’s ex’s flat, the ‘Princess’- they ‘stagger’ like zombies through the hoard to get into the Winchester pub and BANG, Shaun has to shoot his mum with the rifle hanging over the bar after she turns into a zombabo. Finally, after the zombies breach the Winchester’s barricaded doors and get into the pub, Ed, Shaun and his ex, Liz, set fire to a row of shot glasses along the bar to keep them at bay while they pick them off with the gun.
Baby Driver is no different. Buddy’s (Jon Hamm) arc is foreshadowed throughout the movie by everything from dialogue to what comes on when Baby (Ansel Elgort) is flicking through the channels on TV.
Early on, Baby watches ten or so seconds of a show about bullfighting. At Bo’s Diner, Buddy’s wife Darling/Moniker/Monica tries to intimidate Bats (Jamie Foxx) and shut him up by telling him about Buddy’s potential for blind violence:
‘When my Buddy see red, all you see is black.’
Bats claps sardonically and asks if the whole thing was rehearsed. Over the course of the movie Buddy is recharacterised from a party-boy to a bull; so much so that, during the final action sequence in the parking garage, running on adrenaline and grief, a wounded Buddy drives at Baby like a barbed bull, goaded by bullets, his face lit up by the red tail lights on another crashed car. Baby leaps over Buddy’s car, causing him to miss and crash into a wall instead. It’s probably the most ludicrous action scene in the film, but it feels earned because the binarised metaphor of Baby the matador and Buddy the bull is sewn into the overarching narratology of the movie. And that is why Wright does it, and why he can mish-mash Baby, Bats and the second gang grand-theft-autoing a woman with a baby and a lame one-liner about heistman JD (Lanny Joon of Lost and Saints Row fame) leaving his shotgun behind at the scene of the crime. There is no tone and there is every tone- in a way, like many of his post-postmodern moviemaking contemporaries, Wright’s films are omnitonal.
A lot of people have talked about the music in the movie, and that’s fine, but I’d much rather talk about the actual headphones that are super-glued into Baby’s ears.
Baby’s earbuds are the Apple-age equivalent of Flintstone Gazoo; they are a coping mechanism- for Baby’s literal and symbolic tinnitus and intervolved trauma from the car-crash that killed his mother and abusive father, as well as the stress of his illegal work- and they represent his moral compass, which is why his co-conspirators are always trying to pull them out, change Baby’s song to their song, and why Bats calls them ‘phones’: because they are a hotline to his subconscious. Yes, ‘phones’ is a colloquialism, but the choice was probably conscious when we have two separate scenes of two different crooks messing with Baby’s headphones, and a third of Buddy getting Baby to pull out a different iPod and listen to Queen with him. They bob their heads together, and so, essentially, Baby dances with a/the devil- something Wright stresses again using reincorporation, when Buddy reappears at the parking lot and plays the same song through the speakers on a stolen cop car, just before he accelerates at Baby and his girlfriend, Deborah.
By jamming out with Buddy, Baby accepts that his cohorts are people too, and lets them into his space; he opens the floodgates, and his personal and criminal lives start to overlap. Such a small, simple scene, like two characters nodding along to a song together, carries a staggering amount of narratological and moral weight; of course, Wright has an incredibly entertaining and brutally original way of making the mundane- from a boring London borough in Shaun of to a Gloucestershirean village ‘of the Year’ in 2007’s Hot Fuzz– overexciting, compelling, and meaningful.