Review by Sean Boelman
Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car has picked up numerous accolades on the festival circuit on the way to being selected as Japan’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. A contemplative, poetic masterpiece, this is one of the brightest spots in the filmmaker’s already accomplished career.
The film follows a stage director still grieving the death of his wife as he bonds with a chauffeur while putting on a performance of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. The movie is based on a short story by the legendary author Haruki Murakami, and in their script Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe manage to expand the material while preserving the author’s voice.
Creating a three-hour film out of a short story is an interesting prospect, but Hamguchi’s movie is more of an expansion of Murakami’s work than a direct adaptation of it. And while it is a very talky, measured three hours, the things it has to say are consistently profound and the way they are said allows it to be absorbing.
And the film definitely justifies its extended runtime with the sheer amount of things it has to say. Having this time allows Hamaguchi to explore his main themes with plenty of depth while also leaving enough time to explore other topics. Depending on their background, different aspects of the movie will resonate with the viewer, which is part of what makes it so special.
The protagonist of the film is an exceptionally nuanced character. The first act of the movie sets him up to be a very specific type of character, only for the rest of the film to break down these preconceptions and expose his vulnerability. But what is even more impressive is that the movie features multiple supporting characters that feel fully fleshed-out.
Hidetoshi Nishijima gives an exceptional performance in the leading role, bringing so much empathy and nuance to the character. It’s the type of turn that isn’t good because it’s flashy, but rather because of its quiet power. And despite a relatively small amount of screen time, Reika Kirishima will leave quite a lasting impact on the viewer.
It will come as no surprise to fans of Hamaguchi’s work that this is an extraordinarily crafted film. The cinematography is exquisite, with strikingly elegant compositions. Although this is definitely an actor’s movie, which is fitting given the content of the story, that doesn’t mean that the filmmaker is any less diligent with the technical aspects.
Drive My Car is an exceptional feat, taking its unlikely origins and making a magnificent three-hour poem out of it. Although some may not pick up on all of its nuances, there is plenty of greatness here that would make it hard not to admire.
Drive My Car is now in theaters.