Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
One of the great mysteries of movie-watching is the experience of how time passes, how you can be watching a fast-moving action-packed film and be absolutely bored out of your gourd, with a gnawing, watch-checking awareness of how slowly time is dragging, or how you can be watching a deliberately paced film about people talking in rooms and be so spellbound that time is completely suspended. Like with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, for instance.
This movie has more than people talking—infidelity, sudden death, theatrical rehearsals, and a great deal of driving—but the level of enchantment is such that you will probably not feel its 179-minute running time. (The movie is so confident of this that the opening credits don’t come on screen until sometime after the 40-minute mark.) The bulk of the story concerns a stage director-actor, with the (we are told) unusual name Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, who travels to Hiroshima for a few weeks to mount a production of Uncle Vanya. For complicated insurance reasons, while in Hiroshima he cannot drive his own car—a brilliantly red, impeccably maintained old Saab—to and from rehearsals. This is an issue: He specifically requested lodging that would allow him to drive for an hour or so from home to theater, so that he can, as is his habit, listen to the script on the car’s cassette player.
He is assigned a driver, a sullen young woman, Misaki (Toko Miura), who turns out to have excellent skills. This part of the story is by no means less important than the rehearsals for the play, or Kafuku’s conflicted feelings about his wife (Reika Kirishima), or the troubling temper of the heartthrob actor (Masaka Okada) who has come to Hiroshima specifically to work with the director. Kafuku responds—in an act that appears to be hostile—by casting the young actor as the middle-aged Vanya, a role for which he is obviously unsuited. On the other hand, Kafuku’s usual method involves hiring performers who will speak different languages (including sign language) in his plays, which are then presented with translated super-titles. So perhaps he has some experimental motive.
To his actors, Kafuku’s approach is sometimes baffling: He has them repeatedly read the play out loud, but without acting. To their frustration, he wants them to be as toneless as possible. When one actor finally protests, and begs for the chance to do it better, Kafuku says, “You don’t have to be better. Just read the text.”
I’ve described a little of Drive My Car (loosely adapted from a couple of short stories by Haruki Murakami), but I haven’t described the movie. Misaki drives the Saab so smoothly that the shifting of gears is imperceptible and braking and accelerating are seamless parts of the flow—which is not a bad shorthand description of the kind of time-suspension in movies that is so mysterious. The film is built around people keeping secrets but also telling the truth in straightforwardly emotional moments, whether at rehearsal, or sitting at a bar, or confined to that curiously charged space that is the interior of an automobile. These moments bloom into radiant life because the characters deepen with understanding and distinctiveness as the film goes along, but also because Hamaguchi (who works similar miracles in his other 2021 film, the gorgeous Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy) understands the seismic power of suddenly, subtly changing a camera angle in the middle of a conversation, or a brief cutaway to a pair of eyes in the rear-view mirror, registering a moment.
It is all fluid and somehow about existence. The only time I felt the gears changing somewhat clunkily is in the final section of the film, when a road trip takes us out of Hiroshima, a side journey that seems to break the rhythm, and leads to a few spoken epiphanies that might be unnecessary. Hamaguchi brings it back for an evocative ending, though, as Uncle Vanya is finally produced. “You don’t have to be better. Just read the text.” I’m not entirely sure what Kafuku is after with those words, but I find them haunting, and somehow full of possibility. Drive My Car is similarly inviting.
Drive My Car opens this weekend at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
December 10, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.