Samcrom’s review published on Letterboxd:
While connoisseurs of the club may rejoice when the beat drops forty seconds into a song, it is cinephiles who experience true elation when the credits drop forty minutes into a film.
As evidenced by this drawn-out opening, Drive My Car takes its time; it is not a pointed journey from A to B, but rather a leisurely cruise around the canyons of an inner turmoil. Or, more accurately, a series of return trips, as theatre director Yûsuke Kafuku is ferried by a personal driver to and from his work. These periods of interregnum, between the solitude of his home and the responsibility of his work, are moments of measured monotony, time away from time, a loop of repetition that, briefly, may last forever. In this way, the driving time becomes an emotional palliative for Kafuku, a numbing rhythm. For, although separate from both, his home and his work are bleeding together, past folding into present. While travelling, he listens to a tape on repeat: the lines of the play, recoded by his wife. The car follows the same ruts in the road; the tape plays over the same lines; and Kafuku listens to the voice of his wife and lives through the same emotions. It is a nesting doll of repetition, from most visible to least, from exterior to interior, from the physical shell of the car, to the linguistic shell of the words, to the emotional shell of Kafuku himself.
It is as if he believes he can sap his emotions of their strength by rote, as if emotions are echoes and with each successive reverberation they diminish in power until they have faded completely and are all but inaudible. In truth, it is the reverse: even the barest whisper of an emotion, if suppressed, does not return quieter but louder, more insistent, more powerful. So does repetition cover over that unresolved trauma within Kafuku… or does it only keep it close to him? And— which is worse?
Therein is the undeniable tension of processing something that breaks your world— that paradoxical need for distance and closeness at the same time. Distance, to keep it away, to preserve the self, to heal in isolation; and closeness, to confront that simmering pain, to re-injure the self, to heal in proximity with another.
The film, with its restrained and patient approach, builds the interiors of its characters from an oblique angle, much in the same way a play is memorized; again, by repetition, a series of moments that gradually press in towards something deeper. It is in the catharsis of the final third where the film falters, rendering its subtle mysterious of feeling a bit too overt and obvious to land with as much force as they were intended. Part of this my also be attributed to the wide thematic spread of the film, which, contrary to the singular title, does not merely adapt one Murakami story, but three. The other two, “Scheherazade” and (to a far smaller degree) “Kino,” are blended into the main narrative, providing more literary breadth to draw from, but also somewhat muddling the focus of the film. In terms of ideas, the story raises a wide web of connections between life, art, language, communication, grief, literature, theatre, film, etc. Some areas of the web are more explored than others, the centre— grief— being substantially anchored, while its thematic edges are but briefly touched on.
Although not consistently compelling and sometimes too dependant on exposition, Drive My Car is expertly crafted, careful in both its mood and its compositions. At its heart, it is a film about a man who has become a passenger not only in his own car, but his own life; he is driven, he memorizes, he acts— all so he can put off being himself, inhabiting himself, feeling himself… but not matter how long one travels, the destination will still be reached; the escaped emotion will return.