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Review: Drive My Car (2021)

Drive My Car (2021)

Directed by: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi

Premise: A widowed theater director (Hidetoshi Nishijima) prepares a production of Uncle Vanya. The theater company assigns the director a driver (Tôko Miura) and they bond during their commutes.

What Works: Drive My Car is an austere human drama about the complexities of relationships and unresolved grief. The film centers on Yūsuke, an actor and theater director whose wife was carrying on affairs but who died before he could confront her about it or achieve any sort of reconciliation. Years later, Yūsuke prepares a production of Uncle Vanya and casts his late wife’s paramour (Masaki Okada) in one of the key roles. Meanwhile, Yūsuke is assigned a driver who has her own difficult past. Drive My Car is intricately designed and structured. The film deals with grief but also the illusion of control and Drive My Car offers a lot to unpack. Yūsuke resists accepting a driver because his vehicle is connected to his marriage but letting another person chauffer him allows Yūsuke the space to finally confront his unresolved grief. Casting his wife’s lover in the play speaks to Yūsuke’s need to be close to her and his latent anger with her. An essential part of the film’s themes revolve around communication and confrontation. The actors recruited for the play speak various languages and they must learn to see past the superficiality of the dialogue to get at real meaning. The content of the play and the repetition of the performance connects with the way the characters are caught in patterns of behavior. As tightly unified as Drive My Car is, the film never feels contrived. It’s produced with a cold and realist style which allows the filmmakers to deal with heavy and dramatic material without coming across heavy handed or melodramatic. But in its final stretch the movie makes a visceral emotional impact because it builds so slowly and deliberately to that climax.

What Doesn’t: Drive My Car is a slow film. Characters and conflicts are revealed gradually and the picture has little music or filmmaking flair. That’s the right stylistic choice for the material but Drive My Car requires patience from the viewer especially in its first half. It’s also a largely humorless film. The picture is shot through with a grimly serious tone that never lets up. As a result, Drive My Car has a monotonous feel. There’s little fluctuation in the movie’s tenor and at three hours the experience becomes overwhelmingly bleak.

Bottom Line: Drive My Car is an intricately structured film. While it is stylistically muted, the film offers a lot to interrogate and by its end Drive My Car achieves an understated and yet powerful emotional impact.

Episode: #889 (January 30, 2022)