“A gorgeously patient movie, from the structuring of the script, to the balance of the direction, to the rich and well-considered performances.”
by Ken Bakely
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car is a marvel in many ways, but one of them is, yes, its runtime, which comes in at about three hours on the dot. It can be reductive – or at least somewhat glib – to fixate on the runtime of an individual film, but part of understanding what makes this movie so effective – and so expressive, contemplative, and observant – is acknowledging how it uses its generous time. On a fundamental level, this is a story that embodies its ideas as much as it’s about them, mulling over and turning about memories and experiences as they bend and shape over time in the characters’ minds. As viewers, we’re never given any direct points of reference into the mind of Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima): critically, we have pieces of information that don’t lend themselves to easy descriptors, much like we’d know about a real person. He is an actor who is preparing to direct a multilingual adaptation of Uncle Vanya; he was married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a recently deceased screenwriter who he knew was having an affair with Kōji (Masaki Okada), a younger actor who he will cast in his play; and he resents that due to a vision problem, he is no longer allowed to drive, and for insurance reasons, must be driven to and from all professional engagements by Watari (Tōko Miura), a young woman not particularly enthused by the arrangement at first, either.
Hamaguchi – who directs from a screenplay he co-wrote with Takamasa Oe, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami – gradually pieces these facts together over the film’s opening act, but it’s after that when things become truly interesting, as these characters are given the time, space, and room to live and grow (or not), whether amongst themselves or with each other. The movie doesn’t force connections. Their lives aren’t deliberately made to intersect like gears forming some greater machine, and nobody’s there to pull the levers, anyway. Some movies involve their viewers so intimately in watching everything come together that we almost feel like participants. There doesn’t have to be anything wrong with that, but Drive My Car is confidently, unapologetically, the opposite: we’re observers, placed at a particular distance, given lots of time and information. And yet, many have marveled that, despite the film’s relaxed pace and long duration, its three hours seem to soar much faster than they might have expected them to. I think the reason for this is actually within that very style. This is a story that plays upon sequences of remembering and rumination – and not merely that, but specifically studies them in how they exist for the characters. Hamaguchi understands how to communicate these sensations and experiences onscreen, running them alongside each other, in a fascinating approximation of how we might internally perceive the world, effortlessly made external.
He doesn’t force it. This is a gorgeously patient movie, from the structuring of the script, to the balance of the direction, to the rich and well-considered performances. As Yūsuke, Nishijima is particularly astonishing, leading the film with a character whose combinations of trauma, anger, confusion, and verve are never stated out loud. They don’t need to be. The actor lets us as viewers gaze and study his expressions, exploring the gaps between what he might say and what’s really true. He has the time and the liberty to really work with the character’s contradictions; of particular note is an ostensibly quiet, strained conversation between him and Okada’s Kōji, where both actors are firing on all cylinders below their carefully delivered dialogue. Similarly, Miura’s turn as Watari is a masterful study of communication through restraint, taking someone who’s introduced in a deliberately marginalized context and playing each subsequent reveal with believable gradualism. It’s a gentle, almost invisible push-pull for a character who has much to say but few chances to say it, and it continues up through the movie’s arresting final scene.
By its end, Drive My Car has not only plunged into the particulars of its plotting but unveiled a marvelous, slowly growing subtext on the art that weaves throughout the story. The choice of Uncle Vanya is not a MacGuffin, nor are the particulars of its production, as described in the story. As Yūsuke assembles his ambitious production, it seems ironic at first – in his effort to create a work where languages and cultures intersect and are not necessarily symbiotic, it still seems a fair deal more synchronous than the attempts to communicate offstage. But by the movie’s close, it’s practically the opposite, a commentary in parallel: it’s assembled piece by piece, it experiences great difficulties, and yet it strives to harness the power of its source as its messages and meaning reflect and impact the lives of creators and interpreters. The selection of this particular Chekov title turns out to be perfect, another sign of the film’s minute attention to detail and enveloping depth of spirit. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the play’s wrenching final scene is given more than its due here, but it certainly works: performed onstage as the movie’s penultimate event, Hamaguchi understands how to present it as a closure in more ways than one. If you know the scene (and the last monologue in particular), I think you’ll agree that, for this movie – so perceptive and empathetic about its characters’ losses, their fears, their stinging regrets, and their lingering hopes – there couldn’t be a better choice. You certainly don’t have to know it, but like with so much else here, there always seems to be another layer.