What ‘Baby Driver’ Has In Common With Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’

What ‘Baby Driver’ Has In Common With Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime And Punishment’

Both feature protagonists trying to purge themselves from a murderous past. But Raskolnikov and Baby find answers—and freedom—in different measures.
Gracy Olmstead
By

Major spoilers included.

“Baby Driver” is an easy movie to like. Edgar Wright has directed a film that’s refreshing, exciting, and innovative. Ansel Egort, Lily James, and Kevin Spacey deliver interesting and well-acted roles as the film’s key protagonists and antagonist. The movie’s soundtrack is at once smooth and exciting, with all the pulse and tension of the film’s many car chases.

But the question I kept asking myself, as I ruminated on the film this week, was this: what about Raskolnikov?

What ‘Baby Driver’ Suggests About Sin

Let me explain: “Baby Driver” is a film about a young man who’s been coopted into serving as a getaway car driver. After suffering a car crash as a kid—a crash in which he lost both his parents—“Baby” has developed a rare talent for driving cars at mad speeds. After a wealthy and powerful criminal named Doc discovers Baby’s talent, he forces Baby to assist him in his many heists.

But Baby does so only while listening to his beloved music: he owns a collection of iPods, each with different soundtracks for different days and moods. The car crash Baby experienced as a youngster gave him tinnitus, and so the music helps him drown out the ringing in his ears. But also, as David Sims notes in The Atlantic, “Right from the opening shots, Baby is doggedly trying to block out the nasty mayhem around him (in addition to his tinnitus). … Baby’s habit of recording conversations he overhears (one that eventually gets him into trouble) feels like a similar way of blinkering out the bleakness.”

But this sort of ethical evasion eventually ends for Baby. This happens, in part, because he meets Deborah: a sunny diner waitress with a similar love of music, and an innocent sweetness. The moral conflict is compounded when he’s forced to work with “Bats” (Jamie Foxx), an especially sinister and bloodthirsty criminal, whose lust for violence cannot be drowned out by any manner of music.

Baby strives to free himself from the throes of his criminal condition—but is forced to lie, steal, and kill in order to do so. Deborah becomes the Bonnie to his Clyde, accompanying him through every car chase and shooting.

Baby sees that Deborah is too good for this world of criminality. He wants something more for her—and, by extension, for herself. So at the climax of the movie, as they face all the threatening power of the law, Baby gives up. He turns himself in so Deborah can go free—and so he can really, truly be with her.

What follows is a series of scenes that seem pulled almost straight out of “Crime and Punishment.”

What ‘Crime and Punishment’ Says About Vice

In Dostoevsky’s classic novel, Raskolnikov is a self-appointed murderer: someone who wants to test out his theory that some men—the elite, the “supermen” of the world—are above the law. He believes that these elite can transgress moral codes in order to achieve some larger utilitarian good. So Raskolnikov commits murder—and throws himself into a moral and existential crisis.

His conscience affects his physical and intellectual health; friends and family wonder whether he’s mad, delusional, or ill. In the end, Sonya’s the only person who can save him—because Sonya reminds Raskolnikov of a greater, deeper truth that pulls him out of himself and into the light. It’s because of Sonya that Raskolnikov finally—after much misgiving and backpedaling—decides to turn himself in.

At the end of the novel, after Raskolnikov has been convicted of murder, he stands on trial—and several people vouch for the goodness of his character, noting his acts of charity and heroism in the past. He’s sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Siberia, and Sonya waits for him during this time.

But Raskolnikov still doesn’t necessarily see himself as having committed wrong. Rather, he considers the murder an “error,” and his choice of confession over suicide a moment of weakness, not moral clarity. It takes a dream—a revelation of his sinful pride—to draw him finally into confession and forgiveness.

How Baby Compares To Raskolnikov

In “Baby Driver,” Baby’s confession follows the same pattern: Deborah compels him to give himself up to the police. During his trial, testimonies to his kindness and good character save Baby from a harder sentence. Baby works in prison for the duration of his sentence, and is then released—finally free to be with Deborah.

Baby’s bondage to Doc could be seen as metaphorical for a bondage to sin: Baby wants to use his talents for good, to be free from a life of crime. But he can’t seem to shake himself free. His own efforts at liberty only throw him deeper into patterns of sin and death, until he finally decides to turn himself in and suffer the punishment for his actions.

But there’s a key difference between “Baby Driver” and “Crime and Punishment”: in “Baby Driver,” there’s no crucifix (Sonya gives one to Raskolnikov, thus ushering in a new pattern of thought and motive). Which is to say, we’re convinced throughout that Baby truly is a good person, a victim of cruel circumstances. His righteousness and worth are unquestionable throughout.

He kills Bats, but we all recognize Bats as worthy of death (much like Raskolnikov considered his murder victim to be a “louse” unworthy of life). He confesses his crime so Deborah won’t have to live life on the run—telling her that she’s too good for such a life. He doesn’t give himself over because he necessarily believes himself deserving of punishment. And that means “Baby Driver’s” ending, while fascinating and satisfying in many ways, falls short of a complete redemption story. Baby maintains his composed façade until the very end. He never loses his cool.

But “Crime and Punishment” suggests that until we die to ourselves, we can never really be clean. Our vices lie within, not without. They aren’t mere “errors,” mistakes we can excuse away. They lie much deeper, within our prideful hearts. Raskolnikov’s bondage isn’t circumstantial—ultimately, it’s spiritual. No prison sentence can expunge it away. Until he realizes this, he isn’t truly free from bondage. Thus, Baby understands what it takes to live freely but not, necessarily, what it takes to be free.

I don’t know whether Wright had Raskolnikov in mind when he created his film. I haven’t seen any other reviewers reference the book, or consider the parallels between its ending and the film’s. But ultimately, whereas Wright gives us the ending we want—one that suggests sin is a mere circumstantial bondage we can easily purge—Dostoevsky proffers us the ending we need: one that suggests a much harder, and more personal, voyage into freedom.

Gracy Olmstead is a senior contributor at The Federalist. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life. You can follow her on Twitter @gracyolmstead
Photo Jamie Foxx and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver (2017)

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