For much of Drive My Car, Misaki (Tōko Miura) chauffeurs Yusuke (Hidetoshi Nishikima) to and from his job as a theater director. He listens to cassettes of his late wife narrating Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, and an eerie tranquility emanates from her voice. Misaki drives in silence, with a look of passive melancholia frozen on her face. As days turn to months, they open up to one another: Both have been reshaped by tragedy and regret. Grief has blasted out an enormous swath of their lives. With magnificent grace and poetry, Drive My Car offers a meditative look at how Yusuke and Misaki fill that deep spiritual void.
The first act of the film amounts to an oversized prologue. As the story begins, the marriage of Yusuke and Oto (Reika Kirishima) has settled into a groove that’s as comfortable as it is awkward: She’s a screenwriter who builds her narratives during their lovemaking. (Key scenes often emerge during orgasm.) He’s a respected director and actor, currently playing the lead in Waiting for Godot. We learn that Yusuke and Oto once had a little girl who died from pneumonia. This loss creates a fracture in their relationship that never fully heals. As is common after such tragedies, Oto seeks emotional and professional comfort in the arms of other men. One day, Yusuke comes home early and catches her having sex with the young star of one of her scripts. Rather than confront the situation, Yusuke quietly exits the house and pretends nothing happened.
As Drive My Car‘s beginning comes to an end, it seems that Yusuke and Oto are destined for a lifetime of pleasant denial. The film throws a wicked curveball when Oto suddenly dies of a brain hemorrhage. Yusuke is stunned, not only by the wrecking ball of grief, but the regret and anger over the difficult conversations that will now never happen. He attempts to move on with a production of Uncle Vanya, but the deep emotions of the text overwhelm him, and Yusuke steps away.
Cut to two years later. Yusuke’s pain has now taken the form of a detached, muted sadness. He accepts a theatrical residency in Hiroshima, where he will direct a multi-lingual adaptation of Vanya. During casting, Yusuke is shocked to see Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), one of Oto’s young lovers, audition for the lead role. Takatsuki is a troubled young man–talented, but plagued with scandal. He doesn’t know that Yusuke knows what happened, but there is an instant, heated connection between the two men. They loved Oto in different ways, and now Yusuke and Takatsuki are united within the same fog of loss. He may be all wrong for Uncle Vanya, but Takatsuki gets the part anyway. As Yusuke’s last living conduit to channel his bitterness and frustration, a confrontation between the two men gradually becomes inevitable.
If Takatsuku represents a chance to process his wife’s death, then Misaki comes to represent Yusuke’s other great loss. Naturally, the silence between driver and passenger begins to wane, and we learn more and more about the solemn young woman at the steering wheel. Misaki is the same age that Yusuke’s daughter would now be, and her chilly demeanor conceals a horrific upbringing, and the scars the come with it.
One of the key moments in the film occurs when Yusuke shares an impromptu dinner with two of his coworkers. He invites Misaki to join, and she reluctantly obliges. During the meal, she is characteristically mute. But when Yusuke is asked to assess her performance as a driver, he doesn’t hold back: No doubt his mind floods with everything he’ll never get to say to Oto, or his daughter–his life has been largely defined by things left unsaid. Yusuke doesn’t waste any time. He showers Misaki with praise, brightening her mood and instantly changing their dynamic. What was once an antiseptic interaction will evolve into a makeshift bond between father and daughter.
As the magic of Drive My Car slowly revealed itself, I couldn’t help but think how a movie like this would be destroyed by Hollywood screenwriters. Armed with inane how-to books, they would tackle this story like paint-by-numbers. Yusuke and Misaki would become sitcom buddies, who would form a cheap, disposable friendship. They’d bond, break-up, and make-up, all within a tidy runtime. Yusuke would probably find new love somewhere in this story, and all these characters would ride off into a CGI sunset.
Thankfully, Car couldn’t feel more real. Director Ryusuke Hamaguchi draws his story over three hours, although it’s never boring. Difficult conversations are allowed to slowly move to their natural conclusion. Relationships evolve for as long as they need. For a movie with this many complex emotions, Drive My Car doesn’t strike a false note anywhere. That’s quite an achievement.
Also impressive are the performances. Nishijima plays Yusuke as a successful man stripped to his spiritual core. We sense someone who’s exhausted with himself, and the difficult corner where his choices have trapped him. As Misaki, Miura brings a teflon vulnerability to a girl with deep secrets. For her brief existence as an adult, Misaki has made a living by making sure her past doesn’t stick. Okada effectively portrays Takatsuri as a tragic young man, cursed with the self-awareness of his own weakness. It must also be noted that the ensemble puts real fire to the climactic production of Uncle Vanya, which only amplifies the film’s powerful emotions.
What a glorious experience this is. It’s arty without being pretentious; emotional without resorting to melodrama. As I watched these characters struggle to process their sense of loss, I remembered something I’d once heard: Long ago, two great fault lines collided and opened a massive canyon between Europe and Africa. Over the course of a year, the Atlantic Ocean spilled in, forming the Mediterranean Sea. In Drive My Car, lives are blown wide open, and waves of emotion pour into that emptiness. Naturally, there is anger, frustration, and longing, but also gratitude, love, and hope. Over time, it all becomes the sea. This is the best movie of 2021.
179 min. R. Limited Theatrical Release.
(In Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, and Korean Sign Language, with subtitles)