I saw some excellent violence the other day. Brutal deaths, gun fights, car chases, foot chases – Edgar Wright’s (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) newest film Baby Driver has it all. What’s more, it’s all technically brilliant – the camera work, the timing, the acting, the pacing, the soundtrack and sound effects, and much, much more, it’s an excellent movie. I saw it mostly because I was intrigued – why did this movie I’d barely heard of have 97% on rotten tomatoes? I couldn’t help but wonder what about a heist movie that could be so compelling.
But it was compelling. It centers around a young man named Baby who has been a getaway driver for his entire adolescence. He drives bad people to do bad things and get away without getting caught. He’s very, very good at it. Within the first scene, you’re watching with him the brutality of a heist, and he’s not unaffected.They get away, of course, and the very next scene he’s dancing along the sidewalk to get coffee for the team while they count the money. Baby, as we soon learn, is trapped in this life of crime in a sort of indentured servitude – paying time for boosting the wrong man’s car when he was too young to know better.
So for our setup, we have a mixture of brutality in the criminals he’s working with (and Jon Hamm, Kevin Spacey, and Jamie Foxx are all excellent in those roles, of course), a sense that he’s both a perpetrator and a victim, and some beautifully executed car chases. That’s the movie.
Except, that’s really only half of the setup. There’s a part of Baby’s life that is not part of the criminal underworld, and it’s lovely. He has a foster father (played by CJ Jones) whom he cares for, a life full of music and dancing, and, as the plot unfolds, he meets a girl. The contrast between Baby at the criminal hideout and in his home or with the girl is stunning. When he’s not acting in a criminal capacity, he’s ebullient, joyful, dancing, caring, full of life. Inside the hideout, he is still, unmoving, unresponsive to the people around him, and, in a fun visual metaphor, always hidden behind a pair of dark sunglasses. And of course, he always has his headphones in – a critical part of the character is that he drives to music and is listening to music constantly. The beat of his chosen song drives the rhythm of almost every scene, setting the tone and tempo of both dialogue and action.
And yet, one of the most masterful things about the movie is that it takes a step back from the more structured superhero fare and lets you make up your own mind. The characters are complex, the violence and brutality are woven as a part of their world, easy to take for granted, and still somehow optional and chosen along the way. The criminals are choosing to be criminals, and the violence is not toned down, avoided, or made into a joke. Even Baby, for all that he initially seems completely unwilling, is drawn in again and again for various reasons.
Movies, books and TV shows are at my fingertips in ways completely new, and each one of them will potentially feed what is commendable in me or lead me towards vice – imminent vice, like numbness, despair, fear, and unkindness in big and small ways.As an aside, Baby’s relationship with the criminal world makes for a pretty uncomfortable metaphor for sin – a scary-clear picture of the things we do wrong, or don’t step in to stop, and the choices that seem good but push us farther and farther away from a version of ourselves that’s free to dance and play. It is definitely something worth chewing over, and I appreciate a movie that shows without particularly glorifying a life of crime and violence, and after every chase, we see a victim and the aftermath of bloody choices.
But what I really want to talk about is the fact that part of me is still bemused about why it is so popular and well regarded. Why do we even have a category for “heist movies”? I say that as someone with an unapologetic love for such movies, from “Gone in Sixty Seconds” to “Oceans 11”. I wonder if we’re drawn to the action, the cleverness of a good gotcha, or the adrenaline rush of wondering if our heroes will pull it off. I wonder if, much as I enjoy them, I should really love these movies at all. Each of them is excellent, it’s true. However, just the word ‘excellent’ reminds me of a bit of advice the apostle Paul gave to a church in Philippi:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8 ESV)
We covered excellent. I am comfortable making a case for excellence regarding Baby Driver. I might be able to get away with a couple of the others attributes like just, and even lovely, if we weren’t too strict with definitions. I’m not sure true, honourable or praiseworthy would ever apply, and pure seems out of the question. It’s not just movies that are literally about criminal undertakings that I have to ask these questions about. Movies, books and TV shows are at my fingertips in ways completely new, and each one of them will potentially feed what is commendable in me or lead me towards vice – imminent vice, like numbness, despair, fear, and unkindness in big and small ways. Paul tells us the truth: when we celebrate the wrong things, we can start to forget which things are wrong and which are right.
So what am I to do with this verse, knowing that it’s given to me for my good, and what am I to do with the buffet of interesting and also excellent shows that are available? What do you do? I won’t pretend I can answer that for you, although I can recommend thinking about it. There are all sorts of other pieces of interesting advice Paul gives on matters of conscience, on how to appreciate your freedom without drawing others with perhaps a more sensitive conscience where they should not go, and on who gets to judge us when it comes down to it. There’s also a bit of advice about not grieving the Holy Spirit, and that’s definitely worth dwelling on.
Personally, I take it a movie at a time. Sometimes I am wrong or even forget to consider, and fully regret seeing a movie (I’m looking at you, Deadpool. Seriously, don’t see Deadpool). With something like Baby Driver, I considered both before seeing it and after, and my best guess is thatI’m probably not spiritually damaged by it, and I may just have been edified by the portrayal of the sick trap of sin, among other interesting snapshots of what it means to be human in a world that’s not as it should be. I have friends, however, who might not be able to handle the violence, and I would warn them away from it. Not because it’s not good (in some sense) but because it’s not good for them. So as with all art, piece by piece, and person to person, it’s going to be different. But it is good for me, and I bet good for you, to look back at that advice Paul gave us, and remember that there are virtues besides excellence.