As he proves yet again in his thrillingly syncopated heist movie Baby Driver, the 43-year-old U.K.-born Edgar Wright is just about the perfect 21st-century genre director. He has a fanboy’s scintillating palette — flesh-eating zombies, righteous vigilante cops, stoic bank robbers in sunglasses — without a fanboy’s lack of peripheral vision. The senselessness of human nature is his subject, genre the lens through which he studies it. (His marvelous first feature, Shaun of the Dead, wasn’t a satire of zombie films but of repressive English provincialism. Ditto Hot Fuzz and cop films.) Wright can’t make sense of that senselessness — he’s not God. But he can give it shape and tempo. And what tempo!
In Baby Driver, the beautiful, stringy youth Ansel Elgort plays the title character, the designated driver for an icy Atlanta crime boss who calls himself Doc (Kevin Spacey). Members of Doc’s heist teams change, but there always seems to be one paranoid hothead who gets edgy because Baby never talks and always has headphones on. Is he a mute? Is he slow? No, but Baby has a hell of a backstory involving a car crash and a rash juvenile robbery spree that put him in Doc’s debt. As the movie begins, he’s on the verge of paying off that debt and becoming free.
But what is freedom, anyway? In Walter Hill’s 1978 The Driver — such a favorite of Wright’s that he gives Hill a cameo here — the title character is one of those ultracool existentialists who defines himself through action. Baby has a little more inner life and a lot more pop. The first getaway sequence — set to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “Bellbottoms” — is a stupendous feat of choreography for both character and director. Watch the way the car glides in and out of traffic with geometrical genius, now moving against the flow, now in sync with it, swapping places with like-colored cars and finally easing into the slipstream. There’s none of the smash-cut spatial incoherence of most modern action sequences. Wright’s chase scenes are wild but classical — elegant, as if he knows that Walter Hill is in the audience. He also doesn’t care for the green-screen, computer-generated unreality of the Fast and Furious series. This is the first thriller I’ve seen in a long time that feels handmade.
Baby Driver doesn’t have the soaring delirium of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or The World’s End — it’s more tethered than Wright’s other movies. It’s in the realm of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but without Tarantino’s sexual sadism or Refn’s art-house pretensions. (If Wright were a less collegial soul, I’d say he was sending up Refn’s highbrow splatterfest — but I think he’s merely content to spin circles around it.) The key is that Elgort’s Baby isn’t striking God’s Loneliest Man poses while the soundtrack blasts us. What we hear is what he hears. The music focuses his wayward impulses — it simultaneously takes him out of the world and it grounds him. And he has another way of sublimating chaos. He records snatches of talk he hears in the course of a day and later, at home, creates little rap collages. He manufactures the rhythms that will guide him.
As usual, Wright’s cast is astounding. Spacey drains the color out of his performance, but only a colorful actor could play colorlessness with such deadly, David Mamet–like precision. Jamie Foxx plays a guy called Bats who has a chip on his shoulder the size of an asteroid. He psychs himself up for each job by repeating that he’s taking back something that was taken from him — a mantra that makes his killings seem not just justified but righteous. As another of Doc’s regulars, a former Wall Streeter who threw his life away for drugs, Jon Hamm seems amiable at first but you begin to sense a deeper creepiness. He’s slobby and childlike, draping himself over his girlfriend and fellow bandit, Darling (Eiza González), pushing himself to do the dirty job so he can sink into chaos and dissipation once more.
Wright might adore Walter Hill, but as much as he gestures toward existentialism, he can’t help but make Baby Driver swooningly romantic. Early on, Baby meets a waitress named Debora whose dreams of escape sync up with his own, and his infatuation gives him a new soundtrack. We don’t hear Debora’s inner soundtrack, but Lily James has a light, lilting presence, and you know what she sees in Baby: a potential dance partner. Baby Driver holds on to its optimism and sense of possibilities even when the blood hits the fan. You know that the real man behind the wheel — Edgar Wright — isn’t going to run you over, that whatever stunts he pulls it will always be a joyride.