VOD film review: Drive My Car
Cathy Brennan | On 20, Dec 2021
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tôko Miura, Reika Kirishima
One of the surest signs of depression is when you can no longer enjoy the things that normally give you a sense of purpose. For the protagonist of Drive My Car, middle-aged actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), this is triggered by the discovery that his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is cheating on him with a popular young actor named Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Their love-making is accompanied by music from a record player, while scenes with a solitary Yūsuke are marked either by their silence or the monotonous buzzing of everyday life, such as the blaring grind of a garage door closing or Skype’s mechanically chirpy ringtone.
By suppressing his knowledge of the infidelity from her, Yūsuke permanently denies himself closure when Oto suddenly dies of a brain haemorrhage. Cut to two years later, and Yūsuke remains unhappily unchanged as he drives to Hiroshima for a job directing a multi-lingual performance of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It is here, around 40 minutes into a 3-hour runtime, that director Ryusuke Hamaguchi decides to unfurl the opening credits. Usually a sign that this is where the film begins, by delaying this expected gesture, Hamaguchi is able to convey the notion that Yūsuke is still mired in grief. Form in Drive My Car is tightly interwoven into the story that Hamaguchi is trying to tell.
Forbidden by his employers to drive by himself, Yūsuke is assigned a young chauffeur named Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) to escort him to and from rehearsals. Yūsuke’s bright red relic of a car is both a symbol of his inability to move on, and a vessel through which he can change as he begins to connect with Misaki and empathise with her own trauma. It is because of this that the car becomes the site of the film’s most vital scenes. Azusa Yamasaki’s precise editing throughout ably charts the shifting dynamics between characters.
Much of the film’s runtime alternates between rehearsals for the Uncle Vanya performance and Yūsuke’s car journeys with Misaki. Casting a now-disgraced Kōji in the title role that Yūsuke himself was unable to play after Oto’s death, the wounded widower’s role as director becomes an unintentional form of therapy. Chekhov’s dialogue often seems to be speaking directly to Yūsuke’s circumstances. This, in addition to Oto’s career as a screenwriter, drives the film’s underlying theme about the role of art in our lives. On the one hand, Drive My Car adheres to the cliché that art is a healing force, but also admits that it can be a mysterious and somewhat unreliable salve to the troubles that beset us, and that its restorative properties are only arrived at through genuine, if uncomfortable, connections with the people in our lives.
If the conclusions Drive My Car arrives at seem disappointingly trite, then it is because the answers to grief and despair are often, in reality, quite quotidian. Where the film excels is in truthfully portraying the journey to believe in those revelations. There is maturity in learning that the road to healing takes time and relies on taking unexpected routes to get there. That is why the film’s deliberate pace is necessary for it to succeed.
Drive My Car is required viewing for anyone who’s ever been touched by art. It largely side-steps the alienation that such self-reflexive fare can induce through strong character development and subdued performances from an excellent cast.