In one chapter of his book Movies are Prayers, film critic Josh Larsen addresses the topic of joy in film and faith. He writes that joy is linked to our expression of gratitude, and “both looks back at what God has done at the dawn of time and looks forward...anticipating our full enjoyment of God in the new creation.”
Joy is spontaneous, highlighting hope and possibility everywhere. In our everyday lives, this could mean the gratitude we feel for life’s big moments, or finding beauty in the mundane. In film, this kind of exuberance can express thanks and delight in settings, characters, experiences, and even its own influences.
The new film Baby Driver is a movie that expresses joy through art, specifically music. The action film from director Edgar Wright connects the joy of listening to a favorite song to the way those musical rhythms color our everyday lives. At its best, the film is a celebration of joy in creativity that bleeds over into a joy in creation itself. It struggles, however, to turn that aesthetic delight into something of substance.
Our hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), is a getaway driver for bank robbing mastermind Doc (Kevin Spacey), conscripted into working off a debt he incurred as a kid. Baby is a virtuoso driver, able to pull off hairpin turns and high-speed chases with ease — as long as he has the right soundtrack. Afflicted with tinnitus after a childhood car wreck that killed his parents, Baby is constantly listening to music to drown out the ringing. Baby’s love of music helps him in everything he does, whether it’s the timing that makes him a natural behind the wheel, or dancing down the street to grab coffee for his boss.
Baby’s involved in a dangerous line of work, but he’s able to remove himself mentally from what he does. He never robs the banks himself and never has to shoot a gun. If the job goes well, nobody gets hurt or killed. He decides to leave that life behind, however, when he meets Deborah (Lily James) a fellow music lover whose affection gives Baby hope for a better life. But of course, getting out of the underworld is easier said than done, and Baby will end up with blood on his hands before it’s all over.
The first part of Baby Driver feels like a musical, with heists and car chases perfectly timed to the music in Baby’s ears. Car doors, gunfire, sirens, and tire squeals become an extra rhythm section. Outside the isolation of Baby’s headphones, other characters move in ways that naturally complement the music. At home, Baby transforms into Gene Kelly, listening to records and gliding around the kitchen as he makes a peanut butter sandwich.
All this precise, perfect timing and effortless grace is, of course, by meticulous design. Like Baby, we’re feeling that rare, delightful synchronicity of hearing the exact right song at the exact right moment. It’s an expression of that form of rapturous joy that takes you out of yourself, the kind that makes that veil between the worlds a little thinner, and helps us feel just a little closer to heaven.
Unfortunately, this joyful, hope-filled vision lacks consistency once the tone of the film changes. After the introduction of Bats (Jamie Foxx) a volatile, chaos-loving robber, the action turns fatally violent. The movie gets more violent as it moves along, and more dramatic as the stakes rise. But as the bullets fly and the body count rises, it becomes increasingly noticeable that there’s no bigger meaning behind any of it. In its second half, Baby Driver reveals itself to be a movie that’s all about appearances, and that revelation hurts the movie both in terms of value and structure.
From a director like Wright, this is a particular disappointment. In other films such as The World’s End or Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the director uses aesthetics and genre tropes, including violence, to explore deeper themes or make self-aware commentary on a genre (or, often, both at once).
Baby Driver, however, is a mere trifle that never moves beyond the surface level. It’s less a movie than a feature-length exercise in editing and sound design. While that makes for a thrilling picture, the overall result is a movie that feels empty. What starts as an appreciation of that spark of the divine present in both creativity and creation ultimately winds up glorifying the man-made, and ignoring the divine source.