In our Genius Character Reveals series we examine scenes and moments where a film or TV show reveals a tremendous amount of character information in a compressed amount of screen time. This instalment focuses on Baby (Ansel Elgort), the eponymous protagonist of BABY DRIVER.
Baby and BABY DRIVER
With similarities to DRIVE and TAXI DRIVER, writer-director Edgar Wright based BABY DRIVER on an idea he had been thinking about for years (and had previously explored in music video form — see below). While Wright co-wrote his previous films (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, HOT FUZZ, THE WORLD’S END and SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD) this is his first solo screenplay credit.
Following a much buzzed-about screening at SxSW, Sony had so much confidence in the film that they bumped its release date up by two months. As a medium-budgeted, original music-driven action film, BABY DRIVER was a summer counter-programming hit with critics and audiences.
Who is Baby?
He’s a young man who goes by ‘Baby,’ although whether that’s his actual name or a nickname that references his youthful looks is unclear.
He’s also an orphan, living with his deaf foster father. He works as a getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a criminal kingpin who puts together bank robberies.
But, most unusually of all, he’s never seen without his earbuds, listening to music on his classic iPod.
How is Baby’s character revealed by action & dialogue?
A red Subaru pulls up to a bank. A hand scrolls an classic black iPod. Bellbottoms by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion plays.
Baby, the owner of the iPod and driver of the car, looks at his passengers (Jon Hamm among them).
They get out of the car and head to the bank as Baby sings and dances along to the song.
The robbers return with their money and Baby speeds away in a daring escape.
What do we learn about Baby?
Like Cosmo Lawlor, Baby loves music but in a specific way. His enthusiasm for it bridges being both cool and a dork.
His singing and dancing along in his car seat are undeniably goofy, but he doesn’t care who might see or laugh at him. Baby’s joy at the song is infectious. It doesn’t matter if the audience share his (or Edgar Wright’s) taste in music exactly, it’s still enjoyable.
In this way, Baby clearly doesn’t fit with his passengers who are hardened criminals. This is reinforced by the squeamishness he shows at signs of violence and how he freezes at the sound of sirens.
Overall, however, he’s confident in himself and his abilities, and with good reason. Baby gets results.
He does the unexpected, reversing when the bank robber next to him expects him to speed forwards. He’s quick-thinking and thinks laterally, taking advantage of the two similar red cars on the freeway when he sees them.
He’s also lucky that those red cars were there in the first place. This, along with the way the bank robbers move choreographed to the music, indicates that we’re seeing the world through Baby’s eyes. This world is musical and slightly fantastical, a retro throwback where these kind of coincidences happen simply because they are cool.
But what happens when cool isn’t enough and the real world, whatever that is, catches up to Baby?
Why is this an example of brilliantly succinct screenwriting?
BABY DRIVER is an example of how to start an action movie right. It’s an exciting and visual action scene that’s immediately easy to understand.
The action has been choreographed (and in this case, scored) on the page first, because like so many of the best action scenes, these choices reveal character.
While the bank robbers might be tough and violent, their lives are clearly in Baby’s hands, and this is the power dynamic that causes a great deal of the film’s conflict.
This scene also sets up a small character mystery that’s answered in a later dialogue scene. The other characters echo the audience’s questions – who is this Baby and what’s the deal with the earbuds?
He had an accident when he was a kid. Still has a hum in the drum. Plays music to drown it out. And that’s what makes him the best.
Doc then explains Baby’s tinnitus, that he listens to music to help him concentrate and drive, and the film gradually shows more of his backstory. Eventually, the audience come to understand what else makes Baby tick and where he’s vulnerable.
Rather than giving the audience exposition straight away, this opening scene first makes the audience want this information.
This first scene perfectly establishes the contradiction in the film’s title. He’s a kid. His name is literally Baby. Baby, like babies, appears nonthreatening in every way. But put him behind the wheel and watch out…