Attempting to distill Drive My Car, winner of the Best International Feature Film category at the 2021 Academy Awards, is largely a fruitless endeavor. It grasps at so many gigantic notions and always, always comes away with a fistful of thoughtful, unforgettable ruminations about life.
Ostensibly, director / co-writer Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story is the tale of Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a Japanese theatrical director / actor grappling with conflicting feelings about his longtime wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), while attempting to stage a multilingual version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima and coming to terms with debilitating health concerns that necessitate him to take on a driver (Tōko Miura).
But it’s also a story of resolve against impermanence, the very essence of life’s acceleration and deceleration. It’s about the auspicious aspirations of the languages with which we surround ourselves and the realization that, really, dramaturgy is what we all do every day — as we try to interpret others’ stories and hope they are able to understand ours.
It’s full of stunning compositions that convey the current along which we are all carried. It’s a parable about presence and pleasure. It’s about the blurred lines between artistic expression and commercial achievement. It’s about individualized de-commitment and recommitment after unfathomable tragedy, the spaces you clear for a partner to grieve both alone and alongside you.
It’s about the cursed knowledge we carry alongside the miracle of our affection for someone, and theirs for us. It’s about hanging on to heartbreak longer than necessary because it’s something we can at least understand rather than anticipate the fearful unknown that awaits. It’s about how lines in a play, like the fears we face, are something that we both commit to memory and purge after a time — the immediate fight-or-flight response receding but those fears deepening and changing as we regain their familiarity.
It’s about the chaos of trying to communicate together in multiple tongues; frankly, amid all of the stunning interpersonal drama here, I found the multilingual theater concept to be socially fascinating. On that score, it’s also about the processes of work, namely what makes us great at occupational dedication and terrible at so many other integral aspects of our existence. It’s about how even the things to which we are most dedicated and do well are born of a denigration or something we’ve denied ourselves elsewhere.
It’s about the courage we must summon to remove us from moments in which we’re stuck … and how sometimes that courage eludes us and the alternative damns us. It is, unlike last year’s feckless and under-baked The Power of the Dog, actually about subtle power dynamics as expressed so beautifully in the three main performances here from Nishijima, Miura and Masaki Okada (as an impetuous and impulsive popular actor eager to gain dramatic cred through his casting in Uncle Vanya).
There are so many revelations across its expansive narrative, but there’s always a sense of poignancy and playfulness amid the patience, as well as a compelling emotional narrative of whether characters are trying to sabotage others or themselves, or if they’re just resigned to where they find themselves in life. This is a 179-minute film that, once it strikes its chords of connection to the characters, melts away like miles down the road. Ultimately, it asks what is more important in an emotional life — objective truth or subjective belief? No easy answer, other than to rebuild, repair and return, over and over until we’re gone.
Appropriately, the best film of 2021 has received an excellent audiovisual buff-up for its introduction to the Criterion Collection. The Blu-ray arrives with a new 2K digital master approved by Hamaguchi with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track, as well as a new English subtitle translation. Extras may be a bit slighter than fans might prefer, with a making-of program that features behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with Kirishima, Nishijima and Okada, as well as fellow cast members Park Yu-rim, Jin Dae-yeon and others. Press conference footage from the film’s premiere at the 2021 Cannes International Film Festival (where it won three awards, including Best Screenplay), is also included, along with a trailer and a booklet essay by author Bryan Washington.