Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi; Written by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe
Getting over something is not the same as letting go of something – one comes before the other. The distinction is clear in Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, an immersive exploration of loss, grief, forgiveness, and coming out on the other side of it all.
Hidetoshi Nishijima is Kafuku, a stage actor, writer and director who’s married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenplay writer. A romantic and creative couple, they appear committed and content until Kafuku walks in on something you don’t want to see your partner doing, and before he has time to confront her, tragedy strikes. Oto dies suddenly, and leaves Kafuku nowhere to put his wasted love, heartbreak and anger.
Years pass, and he takes on a job directing a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which he was performing in when Oto died. In his car, a fire engine red Saab Turbo 900, he spends most of his time, where he has his ex-wife’s line readings pour over him, and he responds with exacting precision, carrying on an inch-perfect conversation with the past. Healthy coping behaviour.
In casting the play, he’s shocked to find the man who cuckolded him auditioning. You’d expect a fight, or icy dismissal, but shock us if he doesn’t cast the young man in the role everyone thought he’d take on himself. Let rehearsals (for life) begin.
This sounds like an intense psychological cat-and-mouse game, and it is, but in Hamaguchi’s hands, it’s not a fiery confrontation or malevolent manipulation, but a process that feels like a silk handkerchief gliding through your fingers. Cool, pleasant, and melancholic in how well it suggests the pits of loss and longing, even when you despise yourself for feeling those things, somehow stuck in a comforting impasse.
Hidetoshi Nishijima has a very high mountain to climb as Kafuku. Drive My Car is based on a Haruki Murakami short story by the same name, which means his character has a rich inner life laid out on the page, usually little of which translates into spoken sentences given Murakami’s penchant for introspective loners. For Nishijima, it means plenty in the source material to inform his performance, but as for bringing that inner life up above surface level through dialogue and expressive action, he has to make do with very little. The result is him making like a forest lake and only letting deep water let slip the smallest of waves. When the film reaches climax, anything that’s above a modest splash feels like a tsunami.
It means when Drive My Car really hits its spots later on, those moments are mesmerizing and enthralling, and the subtle twists that come along the way feel like having the rug pulled from underneath you.
It’s graceful, mature filmmaking and Hamaguchi’s easy style belies the heavy lifting that’s gone into the careful, deliberate work he’s done with his actors before the camera’s even on. Their performances, and the editing that’s gone into crafting some of these dialogues, is staggering, and whether it’s pillow talk or a confession in the backseat of a car, Hamaguchi brings it to life with spellbinding skill. Over the course of its three-hour runtime, he manages to paint a mental landscape of an open road one travels solely because one has to move forward, turning it into a closed circle in the process.
As Kafuku must learn, it’s about having a destination, but for us who get to watch the excellence that is Drive My Car, the pleasure is the journey, deviating from Murakami’s usual brand of mysticism that roils within plot lines to instead tell a clear-eyed story about the profound stalemate unrequited grief, shame and guilt can produce.