A Brief Review of Drive My Car
Drive My Car is a movie that most people will not watch. It's a three hour long character drama, and you feel every minute of that run time. Movie goers don’t have an issue with long movies. They won’t be discouraged from seeing a movie like Return of the King or The Wolf of Wall Street because they both have runtimes that exceed the two hour and thirty minute mark. What they will be discouraged by is a slow paced movie that exceeds the two hour and thirty minute mark. That’s a lot tougher for people to swallow. However, a handful of people will watch this movie, a smaller handful will make it to the end, and an even smaller handful ( more like a pinch at this point) will see it for the brilliant and rewarding cinematic experience that it is.
Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film is about a middle aged stage actor named Yusuke Kafuke, who two years after the sudden death of his wife Oto, books a job directing a staged production of Uncle Vanya in the city of Hiroshima. Upon his arrival, the theater company insists that a female chauffeur named Misaki Watari drives him too and from work. Despite his initial objections, the two come to understand each other, and a close relationship forms.
That brief summary represents only a fragment of what the movie is really about, but with a film of this length that's all one can hope to accomplish without over-explaining the entire story. This is a movie that needs to be experienced. No synopsis or plot summary can do it justice. There are no shortcuts.
This is not only the first film I've seen from Hamaguchi, it’s also the first one that made enough noise at film festivals to reach my ears. Needless to say, the experience of watching this movie has prompted me to put his other movies on my radar for future watches. He has what every filmmaker should have. He has complete and total confidence in the film he’s making and how he’s making it. Every frame is shrouded in authorial intent. The presence of the creator is felt for the entire three hours. I have a craving for this kind of directing, and it’s what causes me to gravitate toward the great masters of Japanese Cinema like Kurosawa and Ozu. Whether Hamaguchi will ever join the ranks of those cinematic giants will be unknowable for decades to come, but it’s undeniable that he has the gift of directorial vision that they had. His observational and non-intrusive cinematography is particularly reminiscent of Yasujiru Ozu, who also specialized in slow character dramas about people struggling to cope with the brutal nature of existence.
One of the film's major themes is emotional dissonance. It is a study of how we repress our feelings and ignore unpleasant truths in order to preserve our own perception of our lives. The main character of this film is a deeply unhappy man, but he doesn’t do anything about it. He doesn't want the dynamics of his life to change. He believes that if he ignores the things in his life that cause him internal pain they’ll slowly fade away into oblivion; that they won’t matter unless he makes them matter. He learns in a very traumatic way that is not the case, and the change that he wanted so desperately to avoid is inevitable.
The movie is also very concerned with the profession of acting, specifically about its ability to bring out parts of a person's inner self that they wouldn’t wish to confront otherwise. Throughout the film we hear the same monolog and bits of dialogue spoken multiple times, but each time we’re meant to take away a different meaning. I’ll be honest here and say that the words of Chekov are a bit beyond me at this point in my life, but once I get a chance to watch the film again I'll take the time required to truly understand them, and come to my own conclusion as to why they’re such an important aspect of the film.
That brings me to an important point. This movie needs to be watched more than once. I feel that my experience with it is incomplete because I have not yet gotten to study it as one whole. As a first time viewer I'm forced to take in the film one scene at a time. For my second viewing I'll already have all the surface level information. The sequence of events and key plot points will be pre-loaded in my mind, which will give me a more omniscient viewing experience. My second watch through of a movie is almost always my favorite because of that. It’s easier for me to relax and just let a movie unfold before me when I don’t have to keep up with the plot.
As I said in the beginning, most people won’t even watch this movie once. It’s a challenging film. Most filmmakers try to force an audience to give them their attention, they fill the screen with action and intrigue to keep eyes glued to the screen. This is how most movies should be, but not every movie. Drive My Car is a film that asks the audience to give their attention. It asks that you resist the urge to check your phone or look at your watch to see how much time has gone by. It requires effort on the viewers part, and many will be turned off by that. But there are people out there who will accept this challenge. I think those are the people that Hamaguchi wants to reach and I believe that he will succeed.