Playing catch-up with the Best Picture nominees for the 94th Academy Awards.
As someone who recently experienced the worst loss I’ll ever have in my still-young life, I felt Yūsuke’s revelation in Drive My Car on a deeply personal level. His pithy yet pointed reflection on all the pain brought on by the loss of his wife will likely resonate with those who experienced a loss of similar magnitude.
The problem was it took nearly three hours to get there. Drive My Car is a patience-tester, capable of dazzling you with reflective musings in the same way it can be frustrating due to the time it takes to arrive at a conclusion that’s fair to call underwhelming.
Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is known not only for incorporating literary icons into his screenplays, but also structuring his films a lot like novels. His debut, Happy Hour, was over five hours in length. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, released last year, like Drive My Car, was tailored like an anthology. In his latest, Oscar-nominated movie, Hamaguchi pulls one of the more daring cards in rolling the film’s opening credits just over 40 minutes into the film.
The prologue itself contextualizes the relationship between the aforementioned Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima). He’s a theater director, she’s a screenwriter, and the two spend a lot of time in the early minutes of the film verbally building a story for their next television project. In the kitchen, in the car, and in bed, they tell the story of a teenage girl so infatuated with her classmate that she breaks into his home and takes small, seemingly insignificant souvenirs from his bedroom while leaving some of her own. Most impressive is that Yūsuke and Oto don’t interrupt one another with the usual criticisms or questions that come with brainstorming. They’re so in lockstep that they can tell the story as it comes to mind, and both be equally invested as it’s being told by one another.
Yūsuke and Oto’s marriage is far from perfect, however, for past tragedy and infidelity loom over the couple. Once the opening credits finally roll, Yūsuke is now a widower and the narrative moves forward two years in time. Willing to work again despite still grieving, he jumps at the chance to direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, where every actor speaks their native tongue. It’s an hour drive between his home and his residence. Yūsuke cannot drive due to his worsening glaucoma, so a young woman named Misaki (Tōko Miura) gets the honor of driving his blood-red 1987 Saab 900 Turbo. Sometimes on trips, Yūsuke simply listens to Oto read lines on a cassette tape. Other times, Yūsuke and Misaki talk to one another; two strangers forced to spend company with one another occasionally makes for beautiful music.
Drawing on inspiration from both Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, Hamaguchi sees the power of a story like Uncle Vanya. Beyond being a relatable story of a man in a 19th century Russian village, for Yūsuke, it is the one production his wife never got to see realized. He carries himself backstage with commendable emotional disciple. Misaki’s quiet, reticent nature isn’t an inhibitor for a man that sometimes just wants to be left alone. At other times, however, that hour-long drive is the perfect setting for Yūsuke to monologue about his unwavering grief.
For me, however, it was the pacing of Drive My Car that grew cumbersome overtime. This is a film rife with long stretches of silence. When conversation does resume, it takes on that lofty literary tone where characters opine about the greater significance of life, shared experiences, and the like. It plays better in literature too, for you have more time to hang on the words of those speaking. I found Hamaguchi’s structure to be too-often tedious to become truly involved in the drama, and the driving scenes, as humble as they were, grew interminable in almost no time. This is somebody’s opus, and I’m not ruling out a second viewing in effort to seek a greater connection.
But as of now, Drive My Car did little for me.
NOTE: Drive My Car is now streaming on HBO Max.
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon, and Sonia Yuan. Directed by: Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!