'Drive My Car' review: A fulfilling journey on the road trip of life

Japanese import is likely to be in the running for the the Best International Feature Film at this year's Oscars.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

The opening credits to "Drive My Car" don't start to roll until the film's 40-minute mark. That's a bold move, a stake in the ground. But it fits the mood of his unhurried drama, which takes its time to unpack its story and the lives of its characters.

At that 40-minute mark there's still little indication where "Drive My Car" is ultimately headed. It's a three-hour journey that tackles grief and loss, the healing power of art and the roads we all traverse through life. And it's a ride well worth taking. 

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in "Drive My Car."

Director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, who also co-wrote the screenplay (it's based on a short story by Haruki Murakami), steers the story with patience and grace, and films it using a plain stated, unflashy visual language. Its characters live and breathe and smoke cigarettes on long car rides, and it all unfolds in such a calm, meditative fashion that when it finally wallops you, it lands like a mighty punch. 

In a steely, potent performance, Hidetoshi Nishijima plays Yûsuke Kafuku, a celebrated theater actor and director who is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter who gets her ideas and spins them aloud after sex. Theirs is a fruitful, creative partnership and marriage, although it's not entirely faithful, as Yûsuke learns when he comes home one day to find Oto in bed with another man. 

The matter goes unaddressed and when Oto dies suddenly, Yûsuke swallows it, absorbs it and moves forward. Two years later, he takes a job in Hiroshima, directing an ambitious multilingual stage production of Chekov's "Uncle Vanya." In the title role, he casts a young TV actor, Kôji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), the same man whom he saw — unbeknownst to Kôji — sleeping with his wife.

Yûsuke both toys with and tutors Kôji, and their relationship blossoms into something strange and intimate. It layers itself into Yûsuke's art, as life imitates and informs his work, and gains new layers of meaning along the way. 

And then there's the matter of Yûsuke's driver, Misaki (Tôko Miura, in a tightly controlled performance). Yûsuke prefers driving alone in his cherished red Saab, enjoying the solitude of long car trips where he listens to old audio cassettes of his wife reading his plays in the role of his scene partner. But when he's hired for the job in Hiroshima, he's assigned a driver as an unnegotiable term of his employment. Misaki does her job in silence and against his wishes. But over time, her bond with Yûsuke grows, and her past comes to form the emotional bedrock of the film. 

"Drive My Car" is quiet and stirring, anchored by exquisite performances by Nishijima and Miura, and enriched with a sense of both longing and forward propulsion by director Hamaguchi. He shows the ways art can act as a balm, and how the pain from our past informs who we are today. But they are not end points, just road signs we pass as we barrel down the long road ahead. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Drive My Car'

GRADE: B+

Not rated: Sexual situations, adult themes, smoking

Running time: 179 minutes

In theaters