As this was the last Best Picture nominee I needed to see before the ceremony later this month, Drive My Car was an epic Japanese drama I was anxious to watch finally. It is probably the only one that not everybody has even heard of and the last film they needed to see since it had to be one of those films that play in three theaters and partially expands months later. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s latest has been geeing critical acclaim from everywhere since its premiere at Cannes, and it quickly leaped on my watchlist to where it’s going to be challenging to describe this three-hour film that had much talking. And when you have yourself a film that’s opening credits aren’t until 40 minutes in, there’s nothing more cinematic than that.
What’s the Story: Based on the short story by Haruki Murakami, Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a renowned theater actor and director married to his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a successful screenwriter. Her best ideas for her stories come from having sex and narrating them to him. Yūsuke is meticulous as he practices his lines on cassette tapes while driving his red Saab 900 Turbo. One day, he witnesses his wife having sex with an inspiring actor named Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), watching and leaving unnoticed as if this wasn’t the first time and leaving without her knowing. Then later one evening, he finds Oto dead on the floor, dying from a brain hemorrhage. Two years later, Yūsuke is invited to put on a multicultural production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for a theater festival in Hiroshima. There, the theater company doing his residency requested him to be chauffeured in his car by 23-year-old Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), thus beginning a special relationship between the two.
The real question I had before watching this was wondering if this will be a drama to appreciate or put in the category of entirely pretentious? Thankfully, it wasn’t the latter. The best compliment to give Drive My Car is it offers the same experience of reading a well-told novel that doesn’t have Hamaguchi class everything up with the highest of stakes when all this tends to be a detailed character study that can’t to looked away. It’s so much to take in if you’re not paying attention, but when it’s all over, it’ll let you sit back and let it breathe over you for what’s taken over your mind for the last three hours of your time. Did it feel like I was watching a film at times? Surprisingly not. Because of the fantastic direction from Hamaguchi and its screenplay, co-written by him and Takanasa Oe, it’s nothing short of being generally authentic within all its characters and the long interested dialogue moments in how they’re eating with what’s in front of them. Maybe it’s because these are actors I’m unfamiliar with, but it’s important to let us feel some empathy for the relationships built around this period.
We have Yusake putting all his attention on his take on Uncle Vanya with an unusual creative choice of hiring actors who speak in their native language, including Kōji cast as the lead role despite his young age. Anytime it shows them rehearsing the play, it can be difficult for them to push through the emotions without knowing what one scene partner is saying. So in a way, it’s all about communication to capture the human relation that’s missing in all of us. The illiterate I am, I’ve never heard of Uncle Vanya before, yet the comparisons between both forms of media play well. It’s all characterization done well to justify these long, heavy scenes of dialogue in these. I had a few questions that Hamaguchi doesn’t tell upfront with specific intentions these characters offer, like the decision to cast Kōji in the lead. To get closer? Revenge? Maybe it’s totally up for interpretation.
Nishijima’s performance calls for his strengths to be a hard-working man focusing on taking control of his play, and it’s a role irritable to ignore. Even he was pretty unsure about having someone else drive to and from the theater. With Miura, she delivers a performance that requires her to be resistant without saying much. They form a relationship that doesn’t go the way you would expect, but they both suffer from fear of loss between them and how strong they must be to move forward in life. A majority of their scenes together involve small talks in the car until they want to know more about each other. Those scenes will give us enough food for thought about how listening is the best way to understand people.
Did it need to be there hours long? It wouldn’t have been my personal preference, though it’s 137 minutes shorter than the director’s first recognizable hit, Happy Hour. Truthfully, I was kind of dreading it because someone like me wouldn’t be the target to watch this. But while it can take a lot of time watching characters talk and read subtitles the whole time, it wasn’t a film leaning to be boring. Sure, it’s an accurate slow burn, but what matters the most is the inevitable journey. You can feel a couple of moments stretched out longer than expected, including an impressive sequence in the backseat of the car, but I was invested for about 96% of the time. And just thinking things over, there really isn’t a score to accompany the scenes. Because I’m not in the thought-provoking crowd, the desire to watch this again or have it on in the background is a slight chance despite liking it since this allows you to be in a certain mood.
Drive My Car can undoubtedly be a challenging watch because of its lengthy runtime. Still, it’s nonetheless a subtle drama so calm and meditative with excellent performances in Hidetoshi Nishijima & Tôko Miura. Not my favorite Best Picture nominee, but worth recommending. Was it worth the four Academy Awards nominations (Best Picture, Director, International Film Feature, Adapted Screenplay)? Since it’s up for the big one, I won’t complain; it’s a definite lock to take home Best International Feature Film. No questions about it.
Grade: 8/10 (B+)
Drive My Car is now playing in select theaters and is available to stream on HBO Max. Runtime: 179 Minutes. Studio(s): Sideshow/ Janus Films