Why You Need to Watch the Best Picture Nominee 'Drive My Car'
The surprise Best Picture nominee is a stunning, three-hour film from Japan.
If you've been around film circles for the past months, you've probably heard one refrain: You have to see Drive My Car. Now, the film by Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is not just a critical favorite—it's an Oscar nominee for Best Picture, as well as Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and International Feature. And you have no excuse not to settle in for Hamaguchi's stunning, quietly epic three-hour piece about love, loss, and Chekhov. It's currently in theaters and will start streaming on HBO Max March 2.
While Drive My Car's success on nominations morning was a pleasant surprise, it wasn't entirely unexpected. Not only has the praise been euphoric since it premiered at Cannes last year, the feature became the first since 2010's The Social Network to win Best Picture from the three top critics groups in the US: the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of NYFCC.) And even though critics aren't voting members of the Academy Awards, those acknowledgements proved just how much Hamaguchi's work has resonated.
The first 40 minutes of Drive My Car—which all take place before the credits roll—are something of a misdirect. That prelude introduces the audience to Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a famed Tokyo-based theater director known for his multilingual productions of plays where actors from around the world speak in their own dialects with translations projected on screens above the stage. He's married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a television writer. They have a lovingly carnal relationship: She'll generate ideas for stories following sex, narrating them to her husband in their post-coital fervor. When Yūsuke witnesses her having an affair with an actor, he's silent about the betrayal. And then, Oto suddenly dies of a brain hemorrhage, all her secrets going with her.
When the narrative jumps ahead in time, Yūsuke is still grieving the loss and contemplating the mystery of this woman. In his little red Saab, he listens to her read dialogue from Chekhov's Uncle Vanya as he prepares for the production of the play in Hiroshima. Though he purposely chose lodging far away from the theater so he could spend time alone with Oto's voice in the car, the producers mandate that he has a chauffeur for liability reasons. His assigned driver is Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura), a taciturn but professional young woman, and Hamaguchi invites us to watch as their silent rides evolve into a meaningful relationship.
Adapted from a Haruki Murakami story from the author's 2014 short story collection Men Without Women, Drive My Car reveals itself to be about the invisible barriers between people. In Yūsuke's work on stage, the actors connect through Chekhov's words despite speaking different languages. Outside of the theater, the director tries to untangle the unanswered questions about his wife's infidelity—a process made more difficult by the fact that her lover, a haughty disgraced star (Masaki Okada), is in cast in Uncle Vanya. The length of the film is daunting, but it's also a thoroughly engrossing piece of art that's sexy and thoughtful.
Even without the Oscar nominations, Hamaguchi had a hell of a year. In addition to Drive My Car, he released the omnibus Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a collection of three short stories that also display his aptitude for capturing humanity's tender, confounding, beautiful moments. But the Academy's appreciation for Drive My Car is a thrilling addition to Hamaguchi's accomplishments. It shows a changing version of this institution, which is more welcoming to international features beyond the category designated for them. At this point, a Best Picture win for Drive My Car still feels far off, but its nominations will hopefully get more eyes on a challenging, moving, and rewarding movie from one of the greatest filmmakers working today.