Drive My Car (*BP22)

Go on, admit it. You never thought I would actually get to the three-hour, sub-titled Japanese film about grief that is a Best Picture nominee before the Sunday deadline.

Me, neither. And yet, here I am to tell you about Drive My Car, not only nominated for one of the ten best films, but also director Ryusuke Hamaguchi for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. And for Best International Feature as well! 

A theatrical director is staging a production of Uncle Vanya two years after his wife has died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The producers have assigned a young woman as his driver, and they spend a great deal of time cruising around Hiroshima in a red Saab listening to a cassette tape that his deceased wife had recorded of the Chekhov play. Repetition is how the director learns the lines, and by the time the film is over, I’m pretty sure that I could play Sonya as well. We hear a LOT of Uncle Vanya.

The movie is a study of people locked inside their emotions. For a film with the verb drive in the title, there is a lot of stillness. Even when they are actually in the car, the camera barely moves. These people are so frozen in their grief that one gets the feeling that if they allow themselves to experience any emotion, something inside will crack right open. Even when they finally get to that point, it still seems like the act of acknowledging their pain is muted by years of silence. The film builds with a slow momentum and tension until you feel like you can barely breathe because of all the intense feelings that are not allowed to escape.

About that slow momentum part . . . Hamaguchi is a master of tiny increments of tension, but the film is three freakin’ hours long. I understand what he was doing with the camerawork—the driving becomes more of a medium shot, then wider, then lots and lots of tunnels that show the director and the driver getting more comfortable with each other—but it just went on forever. I realize it is the director’s prerogative to pace a film the way he wants, but I wonder if audiences who have been seeing mostly Marvel movies would be able to watch this. 

I mention this because every year the Academy shuns popular favorites (like Spider-Man: No Way Home), and then complains because no one watches the Oscars or goes to movies anymore. Of course, the two demographics are completely different and don’t need to have any overlap, but this is the kind of film that critics love and most people won’t watch. That doesn’t mean it should not be showered with awards—this film will deservedly win Best International Feature, and it is a masterclass in silence. And I’m not suggesting that all films be dumbed down to level of the typical movie audience (Jackass Forever made $23 million dollars its opening weekend.) It simply answers the question of why no one is watching the Academy Awards.

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three and a Half Kernels. The pace and the length are almost hypnotic, and by the time you get to the end, you feel like the silence these people live with is almost more eloquent than anything they have to say (and they say it in many different languages, too!)

Categories: FlicksThatYouShouldPick, FlicksIWatchedOnNetflix, (I don’t have a category called FlicksIWatchedOnHBOMax, and also it doesn’t rhyme, but the film is NOT streaming on Netflix)

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