Drive My Car, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi — 5/5 Stars
If you ask Ryusuke Hamaguchi, the human experience is shaped by our failings. We do things we regret, sometimes things we will never forgive ourselves for. We tell stories about our pain, and often, we let those stories envelop and reflect us. We come from different places and speak different languages, but trauma and guilt are universal, and storytelling connects us, even if it can never really heal our wounds. Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the three-hour epic based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, earned an Oscar nomination for Best Picture this week, and is easily the most deserving film on the list. Painfully patient and subdued, endlessly layered, and profoundly affecting, Drive My Car is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Yūsuke Kafuku, the film’s protagonist, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, has one of Murakami’s typical dispositions. A successful stage actor and theater director, he chain smokes, listens to classical music on vinyl and has become disillusioned with his wife Oto, played by Reika Kirishima, due to her infidelity, something he witnesses firsthand in the opening moments of the film. The first forty minutes uncover painful moments from the both the past and present, largely through the lens of Yūsuke’s starring role in a production of Waiting for Godot, as well as his preparation for the titular role in a production of Uncle Vanya. Oto has recorded the script of Uncle Vanya on cassette tape with Yūsuke’s lines missing, allowing him to rehearse his dialogue on his drive to and from work. Both the content of Waiting for Godot and Uncle Vanya begin to reflect Yūsuke’s real life in surreal ways, culminating in a shocking, completely unexpected traumatic event that, in a more conventional movie, would mark the beginning of the third act. In Drive My Car, though, it’s where the opening credits roll. Spoilers follow.
One day, as Yūsuke is leaving for work, Oto tells him that she wants to talk to him when he gets home. When he does return home, though, she’s collapsed on the ground, dead from a brain hemorrhage. The audience is immediately met with Oto’s funeral, and soon after, Yūsuke’s performance in Uncle Vanya, where he has an emotional breakdown, fleeing the stage, and is unable to continue acting. The story then jumps ahead two years; Yūsuke is now heading to a theater residency in Hiroshima, where he’ll direct a version of Uncle Vanya. As the titular car, a soon-to-be-iconic bright red Saab 900, rolls down the highway, the title appears on screen, and it’s hard not to be struck with a sense of awe, excitement and fear about where the story may go next, or what trauma may come back to haunt it.
In Hiroshima, Yūsuke’s Uncle Vanya is a multilingual production, with the ensemble cast all speaking different languages, including Cantonese, English and even sign language. Each cast member is limited in their understanding of each other, so this avant-garde approach forces them to perform based on tone and body language, emphasizing the emotion and physicality of the script. In one scene during the audition process, Yūsuke is asked why he hasn’t chosen to cast himself in the titular role. He replies, “Chekhov is terrifying [. . .] when you say his lines, he drags out the real you.”
There, Yūsuke also meets a valet, a young, aloof woman assigned to drive him back and forth between his hotel and the company. He at first objects to a valet, protective of his car and his daily routine of rehearsing the play’s script during his drives, but the company insists the service is mandatory, and he eventually gives in. The driver, Misaki Watari, played by Tôko Muira, slowly grows to understand Yūsuke’s past, and shares with him some emotional trauma of her own. While the relationship between the two is only one small piece of the film’s thematic weight, it remains a constant for the remainder of the runtime, and acts as an intermediary between much of the film’s ethereal concepts. This connection eventually leads to arguably the most harrowing scene in the entire movie, where the two visit the collapsed ruins of Misaki’s childhood home, where she left her abusive mother to die. This moment is emotionally heavy, but also has an element of catharsis as the character confronts her past, choosing to continue with her life despite the burdens on her conscience and psyche. Yūsuke, driven by Misaki, eventually returns to the theater company to discover that his lead actor has been arrested for murder, and, despite his earlier fears, eventually decides to take on the role himself. The final scene of the film sees Misaki alone, departing a grocery store and driving Yūsuke’s car with a dog in the back seat. It’s ambiguous, but she seems happier; she’s moving forward.
While the ending is somewhat cathartic, it intentionally doesn’t tie up any loose ends and leaves more questions than answers. The questions of plot mechanics, though, clearly aren’t what Hamaguchi intends for audiences to take away from the story. Rather, he seeks to ask questions with the audience, exploring a multitude of ideas around life and death, guilt and forgiveness. Postmodernism and surrealism are central; a certain audition scene may conjure up comparisons to Naomi Watts’ in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The elements of an aging actor blending fiction and reality may remind viewers of John Cassavetes’ Opening Night or Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman. The long, dark drive to the remains of Misaki’s house bears some clear similarities to a sequence in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Contextualized, though, these pieces fit together so perfectly that their inspiration is only peripheral, and Drive My Car*becomes not just novel, but utterly beautiful. Shot, colored and scored just as carefully and purposefully as it’s written and acted, Drive My Car is an absolute must-see and is clearly deserving of the Best Picture title this year.