When one has no real life, one lives by mirages. It’s still better than nothing.― Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya
Synopsis: A stage actor and director still unable to cope with the loss of his beloved wife, accepts an offer to direct Uncle Vanya at a theater festival in Hiroshima. There he meets Misaki, an introverted young woman, appointed to be his driver. In between rides, secrets from the past and heartfelt confessions are unveiled.
Stars: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, Sonia Yuan
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Running Length: 179 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I remember first hearing about Drive My Car when it was making a splash at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. More than the rave reviews, the trivia that the Japanese drama was clocking in at nearly three hours seemed to be a real bit of news for people to report, and it amuses me to no end that running length is still a determining factor in the eyes of so many. Especially someone like a critic or festivalgoer, seeing a film so early in its release when the experience of watching a brand new never before seen feature should be the exciting thing. Yet it was all I heard about, so much so that by the time it was my turn to get behind the proverbial driver’s seat for Ryusuke Hamaguchi lauded first feature, I have to admit that advance notice of a three-hour ticking clock loomed large in my mind.
It turns out that you could have told me the film was half the length and I would have honestly believed it’s how long I spent on this beautiful film. Now seeing a healthy groundswell of support as it makes its way through a limited release here in the U.S., you should believe all the tremendous buzz you’ve heard about Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature. Poised to be significant competition at the Oscars for more commercially targeted films from established studios, Drive My Car is being favorably compared to Parasite. Still, the two movies couldn’t be more different in tone and timbre. Where Parasite was ultimately a dark tale that exposed an ugly side of a hierarchical society through force, Drive My Car is more interested in a person’s humanity, humanity that can only be discovered by sitting back and giving yourself over entirely open and available to another person.
Established stage actor Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) uses the time spent in his car to and from the theater to go over his lines, establishing a rhythm and firming up a systematic approach by which he can remain consistent. He’s married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a successful screenwriter with an unusual way of devising the plots for her scripts. The couple still mourns the death of their young daughter but has found a path forward through their work, which both mutually help to be more fruitful. Their marriage is strong but far from perfect with its unspoken conveniences.
Two years after Oto unexpectedly dies, Yûsuke has agreed to direct a production of Uncle Vanya, a play he was starring in when his wife tragically passed away. Traveling to Hiroshima for the residency position, he’s assigned stalwart driver Misaki (Tôko Miura) to ferry him between the theater and his lodging, all the while listening to the tapes his wife made for him reading the lines of the other characters in Uncle Vanya. As the production auditions actors from other regions of the country that speak different languages and rehearsals begin, the cast and director have interactions in and outside of the space that speaks to their barriers and their bonds.
Based on a short story in Haruki Murakami’s collection Men Without Women, the Cannes award-winning screenplay from director Hamaguchi and co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe is gorgeous in the way it takes its time to develop and let situations reveal themselves along the way. Oto’s dreams which become her screenplays come out in specific situations which could have been handled in an awkward, more rudimentary way, but they’re related to the viewer in words and visuals with a skilled hand that focuses less on what is occurring and more on the meaning behind it all. As with some of the best screenplays (that aren’t out to trick us from the beginning), much of what we see and think we know at the outset in Drive My Car isn’t true. It takes understanding body language and rapt attention to put these delicate flower petal pieces together.
As the grieving husband crumpled up on the inside but stoically facing each day as it comes on the outside, Nishijima’s performance is one of the best to come out of 2021 and easily rises above several of the proposed Oscar hopefuls as we head into the nominations next Tuesday. Playing this sort of reserved grief is difficult without coming off as cold or aloof, but the eyes have it and Nishijima is giving us a great show. Sharing much of his time with Miura, he needs that strong co-star, and he has it in the actress tasked with several challenging peaks to reach without letting the floodgates of feeling flow too strong for her character that is so purposely cut off from her surroundings. I grew to like Masaki Okada’s hotshot young star, a glimmer from Yûsuke’s past now present in his future that has come to Hiroshima for the acting job but brings with him his own set of baggage that threatens to weigh them all down.
Persistent in the way it engages you and fascinating in how in tune with the basics of human emotions it can be while seeming to want to push them aside altogether at times, Drive My Car is well-deserving of the praise it received on its road to theaters. Worth the time spent seeking it out and the mileage you may rack up finding a theater playing it near you, this one comes highly recommended for the dedicated moviegoer.