Verdict: A long and winding road that is worth taking.
Settle in and get comfy because Drive My Car is a long ride. At nearly three hours this film is hardly just popping down the road for bread and milk. Rather, Writer/Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has crafted a purposefully protracted journey through grief, regret, and sorrow. But before you think this might be too glum a ride to take, think again. Because while tonally sombre, there is plenty of reward for those who enjoy the cinematic journey rather than the destination alone.
The film focuses on Yûsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a renowned stage actor and director who wrestles with deep-seated sadness after the unexpected death of his wife. Two years later the grief-stricken Kafuku accepts an invitation to direct a multilingual production of Anton Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, at a festival in Hiroshima. Dark clouds gather as the casting process delivers to Kafuku the play’s lead, Kôshi Takatsuki(Masaki Okada), a young screen star who shares an unwelcome connection to Kafuku’s late wife. Forced to confront painful truths, Kafuku strikes up an unlikely friendship with his introverted driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura), who was reluctantly commissioned to drive him around Hiroshima. And it is within the confines of his immaculately kept red Saab 900 Turbo where much of this tale unfolds. Despite their different backgrounds the pair nurture a kinship and desire to unlock the mysteries of each other’s grief.
Hamaguchi’s thoughtful approach to filmmaking is summed up by Takatsuki, who midway through the film comments: “I get the feeling that you both value the finer details that people won’t even notice.” Indeed, Drive My Car wholeheartedly ascribes to this sentiment as it focuses on small details of Chekhov’s play that begin to mirror Kafuku’s life. I’m unfamiliar with the play but feel that this film will offer a deeper understanding for those who are.
Undoubtedly, Drive My Car won’t be to everyone’s taste—the film’s clinically measured pace, its stillness, sparse musical score, and restrained cinematography will be a road too far. But the more persistent will find plenty of beauty in Drive My Car’s tranquil and insightful observations and be rewarded with a cathartic ending that’ll make the journey worthwhile.