There’s something inherently fascinating about taking a short story and extending it to a feature film that asks for a three-hour runtime. You can sit down and recite all the essential beats of Haruki Murakami’s original short story Drive My Car in less than ten minutes, which is why director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s storytelling decisions in the film adaptation hold so much dramatic weight. For a film whose inciting incident actually occurs around the 40-minute mark (which is where the opening credits actually start), Drive My Car establishes its tone and pace early on, asking for our patience and trust in where it would take us on the road.
It is at this 40-minute mark where theater star and director Yūsuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) must grapple with two shocking events. The first: he finds out that his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is cheating on him with the young, ambitious actor Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). The second: before he could confront her with that knowledge, he returns home to suddenly find her dead on the floor from a cerebral hemorrhage.
Fast forward two years, and Yūsuke is working on adapting the Russian play “Uncle Vanya,” written by Anton Chekhov. It’s a play that has haunted him throughout the grieving process. Actually, much of it haunts him still. For one, he still listens every day to an audio tape of the play, whose lines were pre-recorded by Oto. Every character’s line of dialogue is spoken by the ghost of his dead wife, save for one; the lead role. Yes, the lead role fills no space on the tape; just a gap of silence for each line. Yūsuke comfortably fills this gap. He can recite his lines with perfect timing. It’s a role he used to perform consistently well, but is now unwilling to return to and must find a new actor to fill his shoes.
This is just one out of many details that support Hamaguchi’s analysis of his protagonist: he’s a man who attempts to fill every empty space and blind spot he has with… something. Anything. As long as he can weave some sort of logic in his head.
This can be understandably frustrating at times during Drive My Car. Characters will make eyebrow-raising decisions that make you question their motivations and just how consistent they are. What exactly is Yūsuke benefitting from when he eventually casts Kōji Takatsuki as the play’s lead character? This isn’t just an ordinary young man seeking their big break. He’s not a man, but THE man. Is this all just a way to get back at him?
These kinds of questions are never clearly answered in the film. What Hamaguchi instead aims to do is explore complex relationships through unspoken words. Yūsuke and Takatsuki confront each other, in real life and in the play, on a tricky tightrope that Hamaguchi holds with a steady hand. It’s a relationship that is suspenseful at one moment and respectful at another. It bears a striking resemblance to the chemistry between Juliette Binoche’s and Chloë Grace Moretz’s respective characters in Clouds of Sils Maria (Moretz is playing the role Binoche used to be famous for).
But just like how Clouds of Sils Maria had Kristen Stewart in the personal assistant role to Binoche’s flawed genius, Drive My Car fully rests on the lead relationship between Yūsuke and his assigned driver Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura). She is there to drive Yūsuke to wherever he needs to be, every day. Despite his initial reluctance to hand over his power behind the wheel, he eventually reaches a moment where her driving is so fluid that he would forget he’s in a car at all. For a good portion of the film, Misaki is barely a character and more like a ghost, no different from the one that speaks in Yūsuke’s audio tape. But as we come to a significant turning point, where a group of characters have dinner together, the script unravels just a bit, and you will notice that she is finally getting the attention.
Many characters, no matter how minor, start off like they are barely noticeable. After all, they come and go to us like they are complete strangers. But it is once you cast them in a play, go through multiple sessions of tedious line-reading and rehearsals, and spend so much physical time with them in a car, that people come to understand one another in a way that only silence and time can.
One of the most fascinating aspects about the film’s plot is Yūsuke’s approach to casting his actors for the play: he asks every single actor to deliver their lines in their native language. We are thus saddled with a cast whose languages range from Japanese to Mandarin to even Korean Sign Language. Not only does this choice lead to some breathtaking performances, but they go a step further to underline Hamaguchi’s point about understanding “the other person.” Just like how this group of actors must work off of each other’s performance and rhythm in order for the play to succeed, every person living their life must learn to overcome their greatest challenges by being honest to themselves and trusting “the other person.”
Perhaps the biggest drawback (if it even is one) is the daunting runtime makes every story beat questionable in terms of its impact. For instance, when an actress comes to perform her character in Korean Sign Language, it is unclear whether this moment is an actual turning point in the film’s story. Through Hamaguchi’s choice of camera placement, you can sense the scene is being directed like it is. You can sense as if this actress might have a big role to play, but it turns out the audition sequence is just treated as just one event in a script that has several. The linear structure of the script makes for a potentially unsatisfying first viewing experience, or at least you will be wondering where the story is heading half the time. It is only when the film comes to an end, that the ideas linger in your mind, and the truly important moments stay.
Somewhere in the 3-hour long Drive My Car there exists an excellent 2-hour long cut, but it is difficult to justify removing an entire third of the film out when the screenplay is this detailed and carefully written for each character. With excellent performances, meticulous direction, and some of the most powerful moments in any film this year (two of them are completely silent), Drive My Car is a film that quietly rewards your patience. If you go in with your heart and mind as an empty cup, Hamaguchi will eventually fill it up and win you over.
This review is from the New York Film Festival.