Gorgeous ‘Drive my Car’ leaves a lot in the glovebox

As great as it looks, even Drive My Car’s most iconic images are sort of empty, calling for the viewer to fill them with meaning. Images courtesy Janus Films.

7/10 Drive My Car is an expansive, slow-breathing odyssey across layers of performance. It’s never boring, but it’s deliberate and demands the viewer meet it halfway, and I can’t help but go away wanting more.

Hiroshima, Japan, some time ago- Two years after the death of his wife, renowned actor Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) drives across Japan to direct a performance of Anton Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya.” Due to a strange theater policy, Kafuku isn’t allowed to drive himself around town, and is forced to relinquish the wheel of his beloved hot rod-red 1987 Saab 9000 Turbo to the theater’s driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura). Instead of playing Vanya himself, he unexpectedly casts his wife’s lover, hot-headed celebrity actor Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who’s had to leave blockbusters behind over an underage sex scandal, in the title role.

All of this information is scattered throughout the runtime. Kafuku’s wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) doesn’t die until the 35:45 mark – we can know that exactly now that Drive My Car has been dropped on HBOmax after several months of extremely limited availability.

Drive My Car isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. The three-hour runtime glides right past with never a wasted moment – well, maybe a few – the performances are all excellent and cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya pulls out several show-stopping shots, but the movie is brimming with opportunities to solidify. I’ve watched it four times now and always found it pleasant, but it won’t come to meet me.

Drive My Car runs into a lot of different pitfalls surrounding book adaptations – books are good at portraying the internal, but movies are good at portraying the external, and any adaptation from one to the other needs to work to add whatever material and change focus however necessary to bridge that gap. The 179-minute film is an adaptation of a 40-page short story from Haruki Murakami’s 2014 collection “Men Without Women.” The original story only covers a single conversation between Kafuku and Watari as she chauffeurs him and he describes his life, but the narrative more or less lines up with what he describes in the story.

So it expands and visualizes the text to turn it into a movie, but the movie we arrive at also mostly focuses on people talking, telling each other stories that might themselves be visualized in further adaptation, sitting still around a table emotionlessly reading lines from “Uncle Vanya.” Writer/director Ryusuke Hamaguchi takes a huge leap from book to screen, but still ends up with a three-hour stack of monologues that asks actors to bridge the gap between implicit and explicit with their performances – while still playing actor characters who are performing Chekov’s lines more often than saying their own words. A movie that has seen its story extensively fleshed out to be brought to the screen ironically feels inert and passively told.

The film also relies on the audience’s ability to judge characters’ performances, some of which are supposed to be particularly good or bad and all of which are in different languages – Kafuku’s “Vanya” cast performs past each other in Japanese, Mandarin and Korean Sign Language – and there are additional metatextual elements of “Vanya” and “Waiting for Godot,” but they seem to be more matters of lines inserted into the main story at choice moments and some very general narrative overlap. To make things worse, Kafuku insists that most of his rehearsals be seated and on-script, much to his cast’s frustration, so they’re mostly not allowed full performances to be good or bad in.

One wonders how much Kafuku’s insistence on his strange production method mirrors Hamaguchi’s. I’m not able to find a lot of behind-the-scenes detail at this point.

Drive My Car half-heartedly burrows into more specific kinds of grief about the loss of habits, most notably Kafuku having to adjust his line memorization ritual, which he did while driving, and also about the process of sorting out which habits can or should remain after the loss of the people they started with. It portrays characters who are stuck in a moment – again, this is most noticeable with Kafuku, who holds onto his wife after her death and appears to have been holding onto their daughter, whose death began a long decay of their marriage, as well.  

Bar lighting is a consistent visual highlight.

Drive My Car’s extensive scope and completely linear structure open it up to what seem like organizational problems, such as multiple reasons being given for Kafuku’s inability to drive. How much more energy would the movie have if Kafuku’s wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) were dead at the outset and appeared only in flashback, or if the stories she weaves were visualized?

Where The Power of the Dog is about big emotions fueled by opaque plot details and motivations, Drive My Car is about mostly opaque emotions with big plot details that might be behind them if they showed up. One invites and rewards interpretation, but the other requires it. That’s my difficulty with Drive My Car, and it’s a fundamental question about what film should be – does a movie need to have something to say to be good, or is it enough to stimulate the viewer?

In this case, a beautifully shot film creates a great vibe and doesn’t do enough with it. The script’s muted emotions leaves too much work for the actors, whose terrific but intentionally muted performances leave too much work for the viewer to withdraw emotions that should be on the surface.

Drive My Car saw a slower rollout than many high-level arthouse movies, rolling from just two screens over Thanksgiving weekend to 213 theaters over Presidents’ Day weekend – it noticeably hadn’t come to DFW until the Feb. 8 Oscar nominations, which basically announced it as the eventual Best International Feature winner since it was the only non-English movie on the Best Picture list. That’s highly unusual, the Metroplex gets most festival releases. Then, suddenly, it was available on HBOmax in March.

This type of limited-access roadshow hasn’t been usual for decades – extreme slow-rolls like this used to be common to build prestige and buzz around a movie, but in the information age, when your buddy on Twitter is more influential than most critics, people are more likely to talk about a movie when they can, you know, see it. Drive My Car was distributed by Janus Films, the company behind the Criterion Collection who developed a theatrical label specifically to release it, and they seem to be happy with its $2.3 million domestic take, so we may see a more of this distribution strategy moving forward, but the plan here doesn’t look like a plan. It looks like they gambled and won on a movie that piled up critical awards in a way few films ever have.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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