David James’s review published on Letterboxd:
"The day Oto died... She asked before I left if we could talk when I got home. Her tone was gentle but determined. I had no plans that day, but kept on driving. I couldn't go home. I thought that once I went home, we would never be the same again. I found her collapsed when I returned late at night. I called an ambulance, but she never regained consciousness. What if I'd gone home a bit earlier? I think so every day."
Almost exactly ten years ago - February 27, 2012 to be exact - I walked in the house to find my mother dead in her favorite chair. The part in bold could have been my very own words. A decade onward, it may not still happen every single day, but it's often enough - I think, what if I'd left work on time instead of staying late to help someone close up? What if I'd taken a different shift? What if I'd been home instead? My mom would probably be alive, and my entire world would look different now. It is what it is and was always going to happen that way, and I've long ago accepted that there's no use in wondering what if. But it is impossible to stop some small part of your brain from running through the scenario now and then, not when trauma like that comes along and derails everything you ever took for granted. It'll always be there.
As I talked about in my Personal Shopper review last week, it took a long time to emerge from the depths of depression. I crawled my way back to something resembling a happy, sustainable life after years wallowing in self destruction and walling up my feelings completely. I got a good job and started making friends, I met my now-wife, we have a son together; all sorts of great things happened that I never could have imagined in those dark days. I literally could not picture a future for myself that looked any different than the deep ache of the here-and-now in those moments. It's a feeling I know as well as I know myself, and I recognized it so clearly in Drive My Car.
There are a lot of movies and books about the failure to move on, to thrive, to climb out of hell after we've lost something fundamental to our lives. Many of them are incredible (there's a reason I think The Leftovers might be the best tv show ever made) but none of them ever felt so incredibly familiar, painted with colors I'd know anywhere, like Ryusuke Hamaguchi's new movie. I felt an exquisite sting when the pair of lost souls at its center finally opened up to each other, ringing with the same tone as my memories of finally talking about my grief and regrets years later than I should. Truth be told, I'm still having trouble really talking about it face to face most of the time, even with my sister or my wife, the two closest people to me in the whole world. But I'm open to it, and I'm always trying. That makes the big difference from those mute, numb years before.
The epic runtime might seem excessive for what sounds like a simple story on paper - and it is simple, but it is also rippling with nuance and emotional honesty and fidelity to a certain part of human existence that we'll all go through at some point. The long build is an essential part of the experience, conjuring empathy through extended immersion in this psyche. It's why we spend forty five minutes with the man and his wife before the title card hits and the real odyssey begins. Hamaguchi puts us right inside the head of middle aged Yusuke for an hour before confronting us with twentysomething Misaki, who comes equipped with her own heavy baggage. You can practically see it weighing on her shoulders at all times, her very physical presence seems dragged down. Yusuke begins to realize she might be the more outwardly honest expression of what he's been like inside for the two years after his wife's sudden passing. Sure his Saab 900 is impossibly clean and perfectly maintained, and the man looks impeccable even with a hangdog expression at all times, but the accumulated mass of loss and regret and what-ifs has been crushing him far more than he reveals to anyone.
Through some very everyday stretches of time, mostly spent driving unending highways, through tunnels and over fields, on ferries and bridges, between work and home, between any place in particular, these characters slowly build enough friction to open each other up, finally, at least a little bit. The long crescendo of this narrative finally peaks around two and a half hours in, never letting up until the final quiet moment, back in the car but this time with a hint of a smile forming. You can practically see the future unfurling through the windshield, and it finally feels real again. That's the moment that's hung onto my brain tightest since I watched Drive My Car, and the one most reflective of how catharsis really unfolds over time, how peace can be found by putting it together one thought, one conversation at a time - and how you need help to do it. You can't do it alone. I know; I tried.
As the gorgeous ambient jazz score by Eiko Ishibashi lifts me away from the picture and loops around my head for days on end lately, I think increasingly of how lucky I truly feel these days to have my life, exactly as it is, loss and all. I look at my son bouncing off the school bus with a huge smile, I see a text from my wife that she's excited to watch a movie and cuddle on the sofa tonight, and I know that I'd never ever change a thing, even if I could. I think that's the mental place where anyone could hope to get to after a tragedy. This film, based on a Haruki Murakami short story, evoked this truth clearer than any other piece of fiction I've experienced so far. It did so with such patient style, such crisp emotionality, looking and sounding gorgeous and squeezing my heart even as I simply gaze at two people sitting on a bed, standing in the snow, driving in a car and talking.