Guns, Turns, and Feels: Baby Driver (2017)

Richard Brody does it again, punching out another takedown of a stylish film simply because it doesn’t measure up to the century-long history of cinema. The essence of his argument can be summed up in this line: “Editing to music as if he had just discovered vintage MTV, Wright cuts images together quickly, too quickly to let much be seen.” That’s director Edgar Wright’s signature style, Brody. And what’s wrong with some vintage MTV?

I’ll get to the driving in Baby Driver (2017) in a second, but first—how delightful and snazzy is that opening long take? Some long takes are easier to choreograph than others. For instance, the takes in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013) depend on nothing at all, really, which is the source of its faux naturalism. Atonement (2007) features a long take on the beaches of Dunkirk that looks like it has to be tightly choreographed, but there’s actually a lot of leeway, for the band music that dovetails with the soundtrack can be arranged in reverse: first the band music, then the soundtrack woven around it. Slightly more challenging are the various long takes that make up Birdman (2014), in which actors have to block closely with and around each other and various objects, like doors; but even here, if the timing is off, it can quickly be fixed with some adjustments to the pace of subsequent movements. Baby Driver‘s opening long take faces a steeper conceptual challenge. Smack in the middle of the take, Baby (Ansel Elgort) mimes playing on a trumpet hanging in a shop window. He has little leeway to adjust his timing, because he’s lip syncing the song throughout the take, and if he is straining to speed up or slow down to hit his mark, we don’t feel a thing.

Wright also makes good use of three other continuous takes. When Baby gets a job as a pizza deliveryman, the camera tracks him entering the joint, keeps moving, and picks him up again as he leaves, now wearing the uniform instead of his jacket. Wright plays a similar trick when Baby rushes home to check on his foster father, Joe (CJ Jones). The camera tracks diagonally as Baby enters the building, and it picks him up again as he bursts into the third floor room. But these two straightforward tracking shots are subverted, at least in spirit, when Baby first meets Debora (Lily James). His eyes follow her as she walks into the diner’s backroom and takes off her jeans jacket, and seemingly without missing a beat (although there is a cut here) she arrives back up front from behind him, ready to take his order.

The comedic effect of the first and third of these scenes is in direct contrast to Wright’s modus operandi of comedy through quick cuts. These are a staple of his Cornetto trilogy: think of the travel sequence in Hot Fuzz (2007), or the ludicrously cut not-entirely-alcoholic bar crawl sequence of The World’s End (2013). He does some of this in Baby Driver, too. (Another common method Wright continues to use in this film is the ironic juxtaposition of a serious foreground with comedic background; Shaun of the Dead (2004) is the go-to example.) But more significant in Baby Driver is the quick cut’s evolution. No longer just quick cuts with clean chops of sound effects, the quick cuts here follow the music. So in a way, Brody is right to point to the elevation here of style over substance—but that’s the whole point of the film.

The favoring of style over substance, done so well by a director congenitally unable to remove his tongue from his cheek, can be traced back to Baby Driver‘s forebears, Drive (2011) and The Driver (1978); Bullitt (1968) also deserves an honorable mention. (Although I can see why he says it, I’m not willing to go as far as Fernando F. Croce does and argue that the origin of this genealogy lies in Robert Bresson’s classic Pickpocket (1959).) What connects these films beyond a getaway driver and some car chases, if you dim the lights and squint real hard, is the spectacle of an impassive male lead getting tangled up with a woman. Bullit is the obvious exception here, not because Steve McQueen is more lively (he certainly isn’t), but due to the sad fact that Jacqueline Bisset gives a godawful monologue, truly just the worst, right in the middle of the film, from which “it takes the movie five minutes to recover,” as Roger Ebert perspicaciously noted.

Bullitt is on the list mainly because it has what’s often called the greatest car chase in film history. Featuring insane speeds, falling hubcaps, near misses with the camera, all the ups and downs of the San Francisco streets, and an explosive climax, it’s so wonderful and long (due to some editing legerdemain that’s painfully obvious) that YouTube had to divide it into two clips. The rest of the film, unfortunately, is excruciatingly slow, mainly because it tries to be a serious film. This is a mistake its progeny avoids.

The Driver also has a long and brilliant car chase. It actually has three car chases, and just when you think the first one is exciting enough, the second one has The Driver (Ryan O’Neal) dismantle a sedan one bump and scrape at a time, and the final chase sequence is just mindboggling, what with its front bumper and reverse window cams, its attention to the lengthy overall chase and not just some thrilling cuts, and an unflappable Isabelle Adjani, wearing a hat that doesn’t come off despite the open window and looking only slightly discomfited by all the ruckus going on around her.

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(Falling outside this line of descent, but still worth mentioning, are the car chases in The Bourne Identity (2002), with its claustrophobia of small cars, narrow streets, and Paul Greengrass’s literally inimitable shaky camerawork; and the one in The French Connection (1971), for the insane fact that they shot it without a permit, so a lot of the bumps and collisions in it were real. Oh my God.)

Picking up on The Driver’s incredibly wooden acting—which really doesn’t matter because the film is just an excuse to string together those three car chases—as well as music being the protagonist’s sole source of entertainment, Drive stars a wooden Ryan Gosling, has Carrie Mulligan not really acting but just being her beautiful, vulnerable self (watch this if you don’t believe me), and boasts an incredible retro-techno soundtrack. The car chases themselves run in a different vein: the centerpiece sequence is short and competent, while the opening chase is remarkably low-key, resembling less a car chase and more a submarine evading depth charges, an effect strengthened by the presence of the police helicopter.

And this is where Baby Driver comes in. It’s got the high-speed car chases (regrettably shot in the mechanical fashion of situation-decision-reaction, like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) on meth), one of which is actually Baby being chased on foot. It’s got the retro soundtrack, powering the film forward by getting the film editor dancing as he cut the film (most likely). It’s got the much better acting, with the taciturn Elgort complemented by a trigger-happy paranoid Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm seemingly playing an outlaw Don Draper. And it’s got style: flashy colors, hot chicks, lines of dialogue stolen from films and songs (“b-a-n-a-n-a-s”), and a raconteur Kevin Spacey saying things like “Shop—let’s talk it!” and that someone has “a nasal problem”—i.e., a drug addiction. Throw in some signature Edgar Wright cuts and scene blocking, and it slowly starts to dawn on you: This is the film Wright was born to make. The only thing missing is Simon Pegg.

(Editor’s note: I thought that last bit was over the top, but it turns out Wright thought up this movie way back in 1994, so the line stays.)

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3 thoughts on “Guns, Turns, and Feels: Baby Driver (2017)”

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