Several critical organizations, including the National Society of Film Critics and the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, declared “Drive My Car” the best film of the year. I’m not sure it’s quite there, although it’s undeniably in the stadium. What It Is, however, is the smartest movie of the year.
I mean that twice; it is both intelligently made and remarkably scholarly. Director and co-writer (with Takamasa Oe) Ryusuke Hamaguchi crafted a film so meticulous and deliberate that every move feels deliberate; in a picture that lasts 179 minutes, I was sure the split-second head turns were filled with meaning and purpose.
None of it – even the languid pacing – feels forgiving. He does, however, feel deliberately demanding. Some familiarity with the work of Haruki Murakami, who wrote the source material, is expected; a working knowledge of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”, most of which are played during the film, is assumed.
It’s only for certain audiences, in other words. But these audiences will be richly rewarded.
The protagonist, Yūsuke Kafuku (the masterful Hidetoshi Nishijima), responds – honestly but badly – to a series of slingshots and arrows. He catches his beloved wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), having sex with a young actor (Masaki Okada), then has a car accident that puts his vision in jeopardy. He doesn’t confront his wife; when it looks like she is ready to clear the air herself, she suddenly dies from a hemorrhage.
That’s all in the 40 minutes before the opening credits.
Years later, Kafuku – theater director and actor – took up residence in Hiroshima, directing an ambitious production of “Uncle Vanya.” An equally troubled young woman (Tōko Miura) is assigned to drive him; during these long journeys, he listens to tapes recorded by his late wife to help him learn the text of the play.
Much of “Drive My Car” is about abilities and options being cut. Kafuku’s vision is threatened, following his car accident; he deliberately denies his cast the ability to move freely; the reckoning between Kafuku and Oto is negated by his sudden death. (“When you get home tonight,” she asks, “can we talk?” He finds her dead that night.)
It’s a dark, contemplative film with an odd pace. Long stretches will plunge you into a calm daze; then, a confrontation or conversation will erupt, bringing you to the edge of your seat. There is a strange chemistry in what Hamaguchi has created; I’m not sure I, nor the critics acclaiming “Drive My Car,” can accurately define what’s so powerful about this film. Yet this power is undeniable.
My rating: 9/10
“Drive My Car” opens Friday at the Harris Theater.