The title of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car” is a simple imperative sentence. There are few other things simple about it. Over the course of just under three hours, Hamaguchi reworks and expands a Haruki Murakami short story (it first ran in The New Yorker) into an intimate epic. The director cowrote the script with Takamasa Oe.
Widely seen as a lock for a best international feature Oscar nomination, “Drive My Car” has already won best picture awards from the Boston, New York, and Los Angeles film critics and the National Society of Film Critics. That’s best picture, not just best foreign picture. Is it the finest movie of 2021? Myself, I’d go with “C’mon C’mon” or “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” but I’m open to persuasion. “Drive My Car” really is that good — and it’s the best kind of good, the kind that sneaks up on you and just keeps getting better. A movie that begins with quiet, unemphatic assurance ends with equally quiet and unemphatic emotional daring. That’s something rare in any film, in any year.
Yasuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a successful theater actor and director. We briefly see him performing in “Waiting for Godot.” Among many other things, “Drive My Car” is an immersion in theater: auditions, table reads, a dress rehearsal. Much of the movie concerns Yasuke directing a production of “Uncle Vanya.” Yet it’s an example of Hamaguchi’s love for displacement and even opacity that this movie full of stagecraft as well as feeling is in no way “theatrical.” Consistent restraint makes for a growing emotional undertow. The elegant surfaces here go very deep. Ultimately, the acting performed onstage matters less than that performed elsewhere.
Yasuke’s wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), is a successful screenwriter. She develops story ideas by speaking them aloud to Yasuke, usually after they’ve made love. She is her own Scheherazade. The movie begins with one of these storytelling sessions. What we see are two people in a room, sharing made-up words. The only action is the operation of imagination and appreciation. What could be less filmic? Hamaguchi shows otherwise.
If Yasuke helps Oto by listening, she helps him by speaking. She records cassette tapes of the dialogue from the plays he’ll be performing in. She leaves out his part, so he can recite it as he drives. Yasuke loves to drive. His car is a reddish-orange Saab 900 Aero coupe, circa 1990. The color matters, because “Drive My Car” is keyed to a bluish-gray palette. At once handsome and melancholy, the visual scheme serves the practical purpose of making the Saab stand out whenever it’s on screen, which is a lot. The car is the title character, after all. No vehicle in a “Fast & Furious” movie is as lovingly presented or as much part of the plot.
That Yasuke drives a Saab is an instance of the film’s bent for displacement. In Japan, cars are driven on the left side of the road; and left-hand-drive cars, like the Saab, are as unusual as right-hand-drive cars are over here. Another example also amounts to a declaration of purpose. Some films open with credits. Others wait until the end or have both. “Ride My Car” has both, but the opening credits come 40 minutes in.
Perhaps the most startling upending of expectations has to do with setting — or, rather, how it’s handled. Much of the film takes place in Hiroshima, where Yasuke has been awarded a residency. An incidental fascination of “Ride My Car” is to see how one of the most grimly famous sites of the 20th century looks in the 21st. Even though there’s a mention of the A-Bomb Dome and Cenotaph, Hamaguchi show doesn’t show the latter and only a glimpse of the former. The one identifiable location we visit is a refuse plant. Granted, it’s pretty spectacular — and gives Hamaguchi an opportunity for a bit of bravura visuals. The sequence underscores how Hamaguchi treats Hiroshima no differently from how he does Tokyo.
Two years after the opening scene, Yasuke has been awarded that residency. He’s to direct a production of “Vanya.” A condition of the award is that the recipient not drive (it has to do with insurance coverage). This is where the title comes in. Yasuke strenuously objects but has to give in. The driver, Misaki (Tōko Miura), is 23. She wears a baseball cap, sneakers, and flannel shirt. The Gen-Z ensemble comes with a facial expression to match: two parts sullen to one part glum. We later learn that Misaki has a good reason to be blank-faced. Later than that, we learn the reason goes even deeper. That reason provides a profound bond between her and Yasuke.
Among the cast Yasuke assembles is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor Oto once introduced him to. Just past the two-hour mark, there’s an extraordinary extended scene between them that lasts 13 minutes. The two men sit in the back seat of the Saab as Misaki drives. They talk about Oto, with Takatsuki doing most of the talking. It could hardly be simpler — or more mesmerizing.
Hamaguchi has said that “the biggest incentive for me to becoming a director” was the films of John Cassavetes. You can see the affinity in how Hamaguchi dotes on his actors and believes that emotion is the highest form of action. They differ in that for Cassavetes it was emotion expressed, even exaggerated; with Hamaguchi, it’s emotion kept in check. They really differ in the shaping of scenes. As against Cassavetes’s formlessness, Hamaguchi again and again cuts away early, or so it seems, until the next scene demonstrates the previous one has revealed just enough. The result is an uninsistent, almost-imperceptible rhythm — a version of that undertow — which carries all before it.
“Drive My Car” isn’t austere (for one thing, Hamaguchi is very fond of overhead shots) but it’s virtuosically understated. There are raised-voice emotions — grief, guilt, desire — but characters don’t raise their voices. Sometimes the understatement may be too much. The film’s ending is so subtle that it requires noticing several matter-of-fact clues — the Saab being driven on the right-hand side of the road, the backseat presence of a very handsome dog glimpsed in an uncharacteristically joyful dinner scene half a movie ago — to realize that what we’re witnessing as a conclusion may well be a new and promising beginning for at least three of the characters and probably four. That’s the thing about “Drive My Car.” Even happiness and optimism are subdued. That makes them no less real and even more affecting.
DRIVE MY CAR
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi. Written by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe; based on the short story by Haruki Murakami. Starring Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tōko Miura, Reika Kirishima, Masaki Okada, At Coolidge Corner. 179 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, sexuality, and smoking, lots and lots of smoking). In Japanese, Korean, English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Indonesian, German, and Malaysian, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.