Movie Review: 'Drive My Car' is One of the Best Movies of 2021
The universal language of art unites in the brilliant feature, Drive My Car.
A three hour movie can be intimidating, even for a professional film critic, such as myself. A three hour long movie has to be very, very good to justify that length, especially if you are not watching it in a movie theater where you have fewer potential distractions. That makes the movie Drive My Car, from director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, all the more impressive. Drive My Car is a three hour movie about art, infidelity and personal trauma. It’s not flashy or bombastic, it’s deeply human and warm. These aren’t qualities one assumes of a three hour movie.
And yet, Drive My Car exists and never feels like a three hour movie. The story of an actor and his screenwriter wife, Drive My Car stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Kafuku and Reika Kirishima as his wife, Oto. Our introduction to this husband and wife is unique and fascinating. In bed late at night, Oto begins to tell a story. She tells of a teenage girl obsessed with a teenage boy that she’s never spoken to before. The girl develops a habit of sneaking into the boy’s home and into his bedroom while no one is home. Each time she does this she takes an item and leaves an item of her own.
This story will unfold several chapters over the course of Drive My Car, mostly being told after or during sex. The couple lost a daughter to pneumonia 20 years ago and they had begun to drift apart for sometime after. Then the storytelling began and their bond was renewed. They began having sex again and finding intimacy together again, riding to work and encouraging each other. He helps her remember these incredible stories she tells during love making and she attends his plays, most recently his performance in Waiting for Godot.
One of the themes of Drive My Car is the universal quality of great art. It starts with Godot in Japanese and later, a multicultural presentation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya provides the structure and impetus for the second and third act. The Uncle Vanya performance features actors who speak Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, and Korean sign language, with a screen behind the stage projecting subtitles for all of the different languages at play and the actors using time cues for any language they don’t understand.
The Uncle Vanya portion of Drive of My Car is fascinating as we watch from casting to rehearsal to performance as Kafuku is a director in residence for a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, itself a place that will always carry a burden of sadness, devastation and a seemingly never ending recovery. Just saying Hiroshima will always carry an association with the bomb that was dropped and the thousands of lives lost, even as the city has returned to thriving with industry and arts decades later. To be sure, the location of Hiroshima for the story of Drive My Car is not an accident or oversight, it's an indelible part of the fabric of Drive My Car.
The movie is called Drive My Car because while he is in residence in Hiroshima for Uncle Vanya, Kafuku isn’t allowed to drive his own car. The company putting on the play cites an insurance concern for why they have hired a young woman, Watari (Toko Miura), to act as Kafuku’s driver. The young woman, despite being 23, has nearly a decade of driving under her belt. How she came to drive so young, and drive so well as to be highly recommended, is a story she actually ends up telling in Drive My Car and it is both poignant and notable in the final act.
Drive My Car is wonderfully unconventional in how it unfolds the deep bond of platonic friendship that develops between Kafuku, a man in his mid-40s, and the young driver. Both have traumas in their relatively recent past as well as unresolved issues that they come to share with each other over the course of their lengthy drives to and from the production of Uncle Vanya. The play exists as the action that keeps you engaged and involved while you wait for the next scenes between Kafuku and Watari to unfold more of their unique and compelling dynamic that leads to a lovely and graceful ending.
Co-writer and director Ryusuke Hamaguchi employs the Uncle Vanya players remarkably well. Specifically, Kafuku has chosen a young actor with a recent scandal as his Uncle Vanya and watching them develop the performance together is rife with tension, especially as the extent of their prior relationship is revealed. A lovely scene unfolds where Kafuku explains to the young actor, Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the emotional toll that playing Vanya can take on an actor. Playing a Chekhov character, according to Kafuku, requires an actor to drill deep within themselves to find the performance. The young actor responds mournfully that he doesn’t see much when he looks inside himself.
There is a reason for that, several of them in fact, and they all play into a final act surprise that left me flabbergasted. I was already so deeply engaged in Drive My Car that this particular revelation was a gut punch and yet, for all the shock, the moment doesn’t break the spell of Drive My Car. The film is still so emotionally rich and involving that this momentary surprise only serves to inflame the tension that already existed within the narrative. This moment adds a perfect wrinkle to what remains of Drive My Car, a necessary and welcome dramatic complication.
That’s the magic of Drive My Car, the incredible timing of the story. Ryusuke Hamaguchi so perfectly places every detail of Drive My Car that the pace negates the challenging length of the movie while the emotions carry your interest. The rich details about the universal power of art, the eccentricities of grief, and the myriad ways that people of remarkably different backgrounds can relate to each other, meld into a lovely human tapestry that is the story of Drive My Car, one of the best movies of 2021.
Drive My Car will receive a limited theatrical release in the U.S as of November 24th, 2021.