This article contains major spoilers.
Walter White from “Breaking Bad.” Kint from “The Usual Suspects.” Dexter. Pope Pius XII from “The Young Pope.” Michael Corleone, from “The Godfather.” Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader, of “Star Wars” fame. All these characters, without question, are the quintessential “antiheroes” of the past several decades.
In case you’re wondering, an “antihero” in a film or story is someone who commits criminal or otherwise immoral acts for ultimately a good cause; someone who rights a wrong or helps someone who could not otherwise be helped.
Take “Dexter.” In this story, the antihero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a sociopathic serial killer. Normally, a “sociopathic serial killer” would be the villain in any story. However, Dexter is unique. He harnesses his sociopathic tendencies in order to execute a sort of “vigilante” type of justice. He targets particularly heinous criminals who have somehow managed to escape the law. In one episode, Dexter might find a serial pedophile who’s rich and had a slick lawyer, target him, and execute him according to his very careful and calculating methods.
On the surface, this may sound like a particularly gruesome plot tactic. But watch one episode of the series and I can almost promise you, you will be rooting and cheering for Dexter.
Similarly, there’s not one “Breaking Bad” fan who didn’t cheer on Walter White and grieve at his demise. And who doesn’t love Michael Corleone? As a child, my favorite was “Lord Vader.”
How ‘Baby Driver’ Interprets The Classic Antihero
When it comes to “Baby Driver,” all the elements are in place for a classic “antihero” movie: a boy with a troubled past but good looks, blinding charisma, a singularly brilliant skill at driving get-away cars for bank heists, and, most importantly, hope for redemption. The writers of the film compel us to love this character. “Baby” (played by Ansel Elgort) is the epitome of “cool.”
While dancing around to music in the car like a crazed idiot is a bad idea for the rest of us, Baby looks cool doing what is normally nonsensical. He can even pull off the air guitar, drumming on the steering wheel, lip sync thing without looking dumb like the hoi polloi. Already the writers are showing us that what is bad for most of us, Baby, our “antihero,” can handle. Again, he is the epitome of cool.
But that’s just the icing on the cake. The only thing that rivals Baby’s “coolness” are his smarts and compassion. Sadly, he’s been dealt a bad hand in life: he lost his mother and father at young age in a car accident and contracted tinnitus due to the crash. But Baby reads lips and has an autographic memory. He was adopted by a kind foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), who’s now deaf and mute and depends on Baby for his care.
In one scene, Baby makes Joseph a peanut butter sandwich. As they are signing back and forth to one another, Joseph emphasizes that the peanut butter must be spread all the way to the edges of the bread, and Baby happily complies. Here is a genius – a criminal genius – making sure his dear foster father has his peanut butter sandwich with the peanut butter spread all the way to the edges of the bread.
Baby can only be described as a “savant” getaway driver, which makes him very attractive to someone wanting to pull off high-stakes bank robberies. And for us, that’s what makes the movie and his character both exciting and entertaining. We’ve got the perfect antihero: a genius criminal, with an impossible past, who still makes sure his dad gets a proper sandwich.
The Film’s Romance Ultimately Offers Redemption
The film’s plot positions Baby as an indentured servant of sorts. We’re told that “Doc” (played by Kevin Spacey) uncovered Baby’s driving genius when the boy stole Doc’s car long ago. Ever since, as payback, Doc has forced Baby to serve as a getaway driver for his many heists. Each time, Baby gives Doc his cut of the loot—and slowly earns his redemption.
Then, one day, Baby meets Deborah (Lily James). This sub-plot romance makes “Baby Driver” the most unique “antihero” storyline that we’ve seen in a long time—yet Baby’s love interest could have been eliminated from the plot altogether. Baby could have still done everything in the story without Deborah. So why insert her? Put simply, Deborah serves as the decisive hope of the story. Her romance with Baby is the ultimate device of redemption for this antihero.
Hearken back to all the antihero films and series we’ve referenced so far. What happens to all of these antiheros in the end? One of three things: either the story ends in utter tragedy (“Dexter,” “The Godfather”), ends with the antihero’s untimely death (“Breaking Bad,” “Star Wars”), or ends with the antihero perpetually on the run (“The Usual Suspects”).
Not so with “Baby Driver.”
In the end Baby chooses to surrender and face his fate. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to run. He wants to be redeemed. The film shows Baby convicted of his crimes, serving his time, and being released to the open arms of his waiting love interest. This is particularly touching because now, he is truly free. He and his love don’t have to worry about running. Which is why the “love interest” piece is so powerful in this film.
We All Could Use A Bit Of Redemption
The writers of “Baby Driver” surely must have had this end in mind. In my estimation, they brilliantly used each sub-plot, including the love interest, all to drive Baby toward genuine redemption.
And this is why they get the antihero right. They’ve found a way to genuinely redeem him. He doesn’t have to die for his sins. The film doesn’t end in total tragedy. It doesn’t end with Baby and Debora running. It ends with the Baby admitting that his solution to the problem was wrong. From that admission – through that confession – lies genuine redemption.
Now I dare say that all of us could use a bit of this kind of redemption. If you’re going to see Baby Driver as a great heist film, you’re barking up the wrong tree. You won’t like this film. But if you’re interested in the human condition and in our real need not to escape the sins of our past, but have them forgiven, you’ll love this film.
I’ve always wondered why we root for these “bad guys.” How in the world do we end up cheering for a serial killer like “Dexter”? Or a manipulative meth dealer like Walter White? Or, in my case, a tyrannically genocidal Darth Vader?
Because we see something of ourselves in these characters. It’s not that we’re as cool Baby, smart as Dexter, or powerful as Michael Corleone—but we need to be redeemed, just like everyone else. These antiheroes show us that we all need redemption and freedom—real freedom from our sins and “demons.” And that’s what Baby gives us.