Drive My Car skillfully cruises through a remarkably nuanced drama.
Published on March 16, 2022
Rating 4.5 /5
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s bittersweet drama has this remarkable edge of contentment. It proceeds with a passive yet contemplative nature that slowly enraptures the viewer into a quiet observation on love and loss, trying to find some sort of meaning in life when we’ve lost so much. Considering that it was based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, the three hours that Hamaguchi develops from that text makes for one of the best movies of 2021.
The film follows the life of Yūsuke Kafuku, an actor and theater director. He’s married to Oto and she has an odd way of conceiving her screenplays. She finds that sex is her big inspiration and always ends each passionate session by describing a new story. In the opening scene, post-coitus, she speaks of a story where a girl breaks into the room of a boy she likes and leaves parts of herself there. It’s a compelling story but seemingly not finished. For more inspiration, Oto often sleeps with other men, something that Yūsuke seems to understand.
Yūsuke’s relationship has this quiet desperation. He walks in on her at one point and silently leaves the scene. They talk of the daughter they lost long ago and try to find some sense of enduring love in their car ride home from the shrine, their romantic dialogue lingering. Tragedy strikes when Yūsuke finds that he has an eye condition that hinders his ability to drive his 1987 Saab 900 Turbo, something he values as he uses his transit time in his car to practice lines for his production of Uncle Vanya. Then tragedy strikes again and Yūsuke comes home to find Oto dead.
Years pass and Yūsuke now finds himself directing Uncle Vanya once more. There’s a change of scenery, a fresh cast, and a challenge of creating yet another multi-lingual production, where characters speak in Japanese, Korean, and sign language. He’ll also have to get used to having a driver as the production company requires it. There’s an excuse given but it seems a bit more obvious that the company is concerned with Yūsuke’s driving abilities, considering he had been involved in a car crash years ago with his condition.
His driver is Misaki Watari, a woman who takes her job very seriously. Her professionalism provides enough comfort that the reserved Yūsuke feels comfortable enough to run lines while she’s in the car. She puts on the tape and on comes Oto’s voice, reading the script and pausing for Yūsuke to recite the text. As their relationship develops, Misaki slowly finds herself revealing more of her equally tragic history of dealing with a prostitute mother and a home destroyed.
Yūsuke is an interesting character who remains distant. He spends nearly all of his time focusing on the play, reviewing lines and even recordings of rehearsals to get the play just right. In between these sessions, his few non-play exchanges find him struggling to run from the past. One of the most reckless actors in his current production is Kōji. Though Kōji finds himself getting into trouble with the law and not being as adept at the play for the lead role, he does have a connection with the past. He’s aware of Oto and even knows more about her stories than Yūsuke, a prospect that he’s cautious to unearth.
There are a lot of simple moments in the picture that make it so profound. Whether it’s going over the staging of the play or Yūsuke walking with Misaki through a refuse plant, there’s an unspoken beauty to it all. There’s a comfort in how Yūsuke finds little ways to open up just a bit more, slowly revealing himself as his eyes drift out the window at the chill night. There’s desperation inside him that eventually comes out, making his production of Uncle Vanya all the more poignant for his existential crisis.
Drive My Car skillfully cruises through a remarkably nuanced drama. The performances are all top-notch for being so layered and the direction is perfectly on point for being so slow-paced. There are so many unique thematic touches of grief and legacy that bubble up beautifully over the course of the picture and exude a whimsically sad depiction of how people come to terms with themselves in endeavors that can easily envelop them. This is easily one of the best films of 2021.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.