Drive My Car

Drive My Car ★★★★

A testament to art as something that’s essential—rather than a frivolous activity for those who have money, “taste,” or time—Drive My Car is an intimate epic following a Japanese theater director staging a production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in the wake of personal betrayal and tragedy. That makes it sound like some sort of inspirational exercise in healing, which it is, but writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, adapting a Haruki Murakami short story with co-screenwriter Takamasa Oe, brings a sophistication and subtlety to the proceedings that leaves no room for easy sentimentality. As Yusuke Kafuku, the theater director, Hidetoshi Nishijima delivers a master class in withholding, while still giving the audience everything we need. He’s both stoic and seething. Much of the running time traces the long drives from Kafuku’s rental to the rehearsal space; a recording of dialogue from Uncle Vanya plays on the car stereo as he sits in the back, his young chauffeur Misaki (Toko Miura) driving in deadpan silence up front. (Miura’s implacable face is comic at first, until you learn that it’s masking Misaki’s own traumas.) Understated in its visuals, Drive My Car surprises you with moments of emotionally rich imagery (including a shot of two cigarettes being held out of the car’s sunroof). Mostly, though, this is an interior meditation. When, late in the film, one character tells another, “We must keep on living,” do they realize they’re almost directly quoting Chekhov, or has the play simply seeped into their being in a holistic, life-giving way? Drive My Car has a powerhouse, onstage climax involving Kafuku and a mute actress employing Korean Sign Language (Park Yoo-rim) that leaves you stunned, then the movie softens the landing with a coda involving Misaki that’s somehow even more perfect—a miniature dramatization of the sort of restoration that great art can encourage.

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