WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Baby Driver. Please approach with caution.
It’s easy to see why Baby Driver, the newest film from British director Edgar Wright, has done so well with critics and audiences alike. It’s refreshing to see an original action-comedy film, executed with such technical verve, stand out amid a sea of summer blockbusters and endless sequels. When the film, starring Ansel Elgort as an unlikely getaway driver for a band of small-time bank robbers, is firing on all cylinders, it’s a thrill to watch, unlike anything playing in theaters this season. With its deftly handled combination of dazzling car chases and fascinating musical cues, Baby Driver shows Wright as a world-class crowd pleaser, playing with the well-worn conventions of multiple genres. As the 4th of July weekend box-office forecasts show the film grossing $30 million over five days, smashing previous expectations, Wright and his fans have much to celebrate.
Yet as Wright’s work becomes more visible to wider audiences, it’s hard to ignore a glaring problem at the heart of Baby Driver: A film that seeks to cheekily subvert cinematic tropes cannot help but use them as a crutch when it comes to the depiction of its female characters. For a film with such lofty ambitions and filmmaking skill behind it, Baby Driver doesn’t seem all that interested in its women.
At a stretch, there are three women in Baby Driver who play a part, however minuscule, in driving the plot forward: Debora (Lily James), the cute waitress love interest of Baby; Monica "Darling" (Eiza González), one of the main bank robbers and wife of Buddy (Jon Hamm); and Baby's unnamed mother (Sky Ferreira), witnessed only through flashbacks to his childhood. While robust character arcs aren't one of the film’s strong points, it’s glaring how redundant the trio of women are in the story outside of their primary roles as driving forces for the male characters’ motivations.
Baby’s mother is the most vaguely drawn of this trio. The audience only sees her in flashbacks, where she is shown to be an aspiring singer in an abusive relationship with Baby’s father. It is her untimely death in a car crash that leads to Baby’s tinnitus, the reason he listens to music constantly. She is deified in the way many fridged women are: She is beautiful, talented, tragic and anonymous. It would make sense for Baby to see his mother in such hazily defined ways, seeing as he suffers from trauma because of the accident, but this gives the audience nothing to latch onto. It doesn’t make Baby more interesting to give him a dead mother, nor can viewers find anything tangible to relate to or understand his mother. She is simply a stock figure of motivational tragedy, one who isn’t even given a name. She is barely a person.
For the living women, things don’t fare much better. Darling is the only woman on any of the various teams of crooks employed by crime kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). She’s depicted mostly in terms of her relationship to Buddy, fawning over him and engaging in displays of public affection the rest of the cast try to ignore. She doesn’t have much in the way of personality beyond being a “feisty Latina” who is dedicated to her man. Darling plays an equal part in the heists – she’s as gun-happy as her husband – but he’s the one she turns to when they talk about the plans and their hopes for the future. Outside of her marriage, there’s little to define her, and it’s only when she is shot down by the police after the post office robbery goes wrong that her reason for being becomes clear. If Baby’s mother and her tragic end is his motivation, Darling’s death is Buddy’s. Once she is out of the picture, Buddy becomes a more threatening and rounded-out presence in the story, acting as an antagonist to Baby’s escape plans in revenge. It’s a plot choice of such glaring ignorance that you can’t help but wonder if Wright was aware of it or not. For someone who has made an exceptional career out of playing with the staid tropes of popcorn fare, he’s remarkably sloppy when it comes to depicting the women used to define them.
And then there’s Debora. The audience first sees her walking past a coffee shop Baby is in, where he notices her but she passes by unaware. Later, she walks into the diner he’s eating in, singing “B-A-B-Y” by Carly Thomas. The pair’s first meeting is intended to be a moment of sweet, undeniable chemistry, but once again, there’s so little to grasp. They both like music and they both like each other, and that’s all we really know about them beyond a mutual fantasy of escaping on the open road. In a couple of semi-dream moments, Debora is visualised as a fantasy woman, perched against a shiny roofless car, clad in a flowing sun dress, waiting for her man so they can accomplish their vague Disney Princess-esque dream of adventure. It’s clear that she exists only to motivate Baby, and later for him to protect her once the unhinged crook Bats (Jamie Foxx) lasers in on her as a potential liability.
When she immediately agrees to go along with Baby’s escape plan, it makes no sense that she’d throw everything away to be the accessory to a man she’s just seen shoot someone and run from the authorities. She offers no conflict or questioning of Baby’s blatantly stupid plans, and never seems that bothered to be repeatedly put in danger by a man she barely knows. All the audience needs to know, apparently, is that their mutual love of music and getting away from their lives is enough reason to root for them both, even after one of them is responsible for multiple people being injured or killed.
Aesthetic is king in Baby Driver, although it's always played a driving role in Wright's work. Few people edit as slickly as he does, or offer such stylistic approaches to comic timing. With a craftsman's eye, Wright can nimbly tread the tightrope between parodying genre tropes and gleefully indulging in them. What is Shaun of the Dead if not a glorious zombie pastiche that still has the nerve to keep the stakes high? The World's End has a dizzying B-movie hook yet commits to emotional darkness and a truly bleak ending. His criminally underrated adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a breathless embrace of video games, hipster culture and kung-fu that delights in its vibrancy while retaining a tricky emotional centre. For all its dazzling displays, Scott Pilgrim is a story with a sharp lesson to be learned: Women are not objects to be fetishized, nor are they prizes to be won. While it’s not as layered as its source material, Wright’s take does a good job of condensing that core theme and ensuring that its execution in the film remains potent.
That part of Scott Pilgrim makes Baby Driver’s failings with its female characters all the more disappointing, because it could have been so much more. The film excels in those opening scenes, where Baby, who cloaks himself in the façade of coolness, lets his dorkiness show in a dance through the streets of Atlanta, bumping into passers-by who look disdainfully at his escapades. It’s a peek behind the curtain, revealing that behind every hero is a fanboy putting on a show. Yet the moment the women are introduced, that sliver of awareness is dropped in favour of drooling adoration for the expected tropes of the crime/getaway genre. Outside of that admittedly smart gimmick, where Baby’s music provides an impeccably timed score to the action, there’s little to invest in. As much as the story tries to convince us of its inherent sweetness, buoyed by a supposedly beautiful romance, the sound and fury truly signify nothing.
In an interview with Uproxx, Wright confessed that he'd been working on Baby Driver and its concept for over 20 years, achingly choosing the right songs for each scene and meticulously detailing those standout moments that have garnered such acclaim. While that's certainly admirable, and his passion shows in those incredible car chases, it's a shame he didn't seem to develop the female characters beyond "sexy props." Imagine Baby Driver with Lily James in the lead instead of Ansel Elgort, or a vengeful Eiza González over Jon Hamm, or a story where Baby's mother is alive and actively participating in his life. Edgar Wright is one of the brightest minds in the business. It’s only fair that we expect better from him when it comes to the women who populate his vivid worlds.