Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is an emotionally aching film that utilises its extended runtime to perfection. A shattering piece of poetic cinema that, if it isn’t on your much watch list, should be, without a shadow of a doubt, the best film of 2021.
Theatre practitioner Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has a seemingly fulfilling marriage with his screenwriter wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), but suspicions and pain are not far away in their relationship. Years later, he’s employed to direct the play Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima and assigned a chauffeur, a young woman named Misaki (Tôko Miura). During their long journeys together in Kafuku’s precious Saab 900, he begins to confront the mysteries of his marriage and how much he truly understood about his wife.
Proof of how extraordinary Drive My Car is, the prologue to the film runs for a staggering 45 minutes. It is so good that that sole prologue could be extended by 30 minutes and become an excellent feature film itself. The relationship between Yûsuke and Oto is filmed at times to make the audience feel uncomfortable prying into something so personal. We see their tender moments, and you want to glance away out of respect. However, when we see what appears to be the most perfectly functional relationship, the cracks are not too far away. At times there is clear friction between the two, and as Hamaguchi slowly opens the story, we realise just how emotionally complex the near few hours will be.
When we come back to Yûsuke two years later, we see someone who is the shell of who he once was. No longer interested in acting, he focuses on direction, and as such, his demeanour has changed dramatically; he is rougher, sterner than before, rarely opening himself up to anything or anyone. He wants his solitude, so when forced for insurance reasons to have a chauffeur, his new short term life in Hiroshima takes a turn.
It is here in this fleshed-out version of Haruki Murakami’s short story where Drive My Car could go how audiences would expect and with all the respect in the world. If this were a Hollywood picture, it probably would have done. Hamaguchi, however, is a far gentler filmmaker, and he allows the story to breathe and glance around. Allowing us as the audience member to take in more than a slicker film would. There is a perfect stillness to his film that resonates so closely with you. Every movement of the characters or the camera is carefully placed before our eyes with such deliberate meticulousness that you forget to question the film’s length. Add into that for a movie as long as it is, you never really notice it, so engrossed you become with the story, with where Hamaguchi is taking you. You are all in on this painful journey, not just for Yûsuke, but all of those around him.
Nishijima is astonishingly brilliant as Yûsuke. What works so well with his performance is that he is given so much time to allow the character to evolve in front of us. We see how open he is at the start of the film, and so when he enters Hiroshima, and we see this refrained, isolated man, we understand why. So when his characters begin to open up from that self-imposed shell, we can appreciate it more thanks to the little subtleties Nishijima presents. He epitomises what works so well in Drive My Car; it is not the big moments that bring attention; it is the small, almost missable moments that are built on again and again that affects you. His sadness is plain to see in very emotionally physical performance, and with about of luck, awards season will be kind to him.
Though he is not the only standout here as virtually all of the cast could be glowingly written about, but words have to be shared about the performance of Tôko Miura, who is the ever beating if the also reclusive heart of Drive My Car. She gives a strong performance that wonderfully compliments Nishijima; she is just as emotionally troubled as our male lead, yet her wounds are opened. Her emotions evolve differently than she is as integral to the story. When she has her moment in the film’s final act, you are smashed into pieces for her.
The focus on Yûsuke’s journey through the film is utterly fascinating to watch; he has his complicated relationship with his wife that has left him a shell of the man and perhaps even performer that he was once was. His method of having his cast deadpan their way through the rehearsals to know the dialogue inside out is intriguing and appears to be him pushing out his emotionless feelings to the art. He wants people to live the play the same way he listens to Oto’s voice through the tapes every day. His main memory of his wife. It is a very mechanical approach that works, yet thanks to Misaki, he slightly alters it as he begins to warm once more to live.
This laborious approach could quickly be echoed into Drive My Car itself, especially as we see rehearsal after rehearsal; however, each time the film does go back to that rehearsal space, it moves forwards, either emotionally via Yûsuke or one of his supporting cast. Another layer is added that helps drive the film to its end destination. This method could easily derail the film, and it would have less confident and controlled hands. Instead, Hamaguchi never lets the film loose from his grip, every move and word is important to the overall piece, and it is utterly fascinating because of it. His lingering camera strikes you as you try to figure out where the film will end up at.
Yes, the runtime could be seen as an issue for some audiences, but quite frankly, there would be no other way or length to have Drive My Car be. It is filmmaking at its very best, and its beauty devastating beauty takes a firm hold of you and refuses to let you go until the credits roll, and even then, it remains with you, echoing in your mind long afterwards.
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