Drive My Car

Drive My Car ★★★★½

An entrancing story is verbalized in bed between a couple at the beginning that’s kicked off by the woman, and it’s really a kinky pitch of a screenwriting idea (a young woman breaks into her crush’s home and exchanges “tokens,” and it escalates, then morphs into something both sexually masturbatory and ominous). There are several fascinating developments in its prologue, we realize, all at once. This is a married couple. These story pitches after sex are part of their routine. The husband Mr. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director of a theater company with a current repertory of “Uncle Vanya,” the wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is both serenely committed to her husband but promiscuous, and she is the creative type who oozes storytelling after she orgasms. And we learn their 4-year old daughter died several years back.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (Japan, with English subtitles) is one of those slow burn three-hour dramas where the mystery is whether we will fully get inside the head and heart of Mr. Kafuku—he doesn’t realize it, he needs somebody to break into his stony heart.

He is unable to get past one fateful day, where his wife urged him to get home so they can have an honest talk; he feared what heartbreak would come of it so he avoids it, only to be consumed later with what would have happened if he had just met with her as she wished.

Instead, two years later Mr. Kafuku must live on his lonesome. Professionally, he is at an envious career point where he’s been granted a fellowship to stage another production of “Uncle Vanya,” except he doesn’t want to act in it. What’s strange is that he casts an arrogant and undisciplined young actor named Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) to take the lead, yet it must be a wonder if Takatsuki had ongoing intimate relations with Oto in years previous. Does Kafuku have an interest, and grievance, as to why Takatsuki would know the end of that creative bedroom story about the kinky girl who masturbates on the bed?

Meanwhile, Kafuku works up a relationship with his personal driver (Tōko Miura) who seems like a disinterested rube until she turns out to have a respect for actors, and opens up, shockingly, about her own personal tragedy.

I had never really spent much time in my past studying “Uncle Vanya” as a play even though it’s supposed to be momentous, to be honest, I didn’t much care to know. But to watch the play, and the rehearsals unfold within this film, was an immaculate revelation. What’s rich about the film’s treatment is that the acting in the stage play bleeds into real life and vice versa; the “Vanya” material mirrors how families can be torn by petty fears and misconceptions, and the characters recognize facets about themselves, too, and smolder inside from it.

Yet the really big discovery to be made within the film is the tender transitions of how Kafuku and his driver Misaki learn from each other, how they share a similar trauma of how they didn’t “react” the way they were supposed to at a critical time, and how they agree they have to stop obsessing what was going on in the minds of their significant others. It must be acknowledged: Some people are sensitive and deploy reasoning for everything, some people tick without ever there being sound reasoning.

Drive My Car, one of the year’s best films, is about a gloomy man who needs some light into his heart so the gloom will stop. Sometimes life has its unexpected, spontaneous ways of doing that.

Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, whose previous work inspired the film “Burning.”

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