‘Drive My Car’ rewards patience in examining grief

Now you can stream this likely Oscar winner at home

Brad Keefe
Hidetoshi Nishijima, left, and Tôko Miura in a scene from "Drive My Car."

Stay-at-home Oscar completists, rejoice: Another heavily nominated movie has recently dropped on streaming.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi's “Drive My Car” is probably the safest bet for a guaranteed Oscar winner, as the lone nominee in the International Feature Film category that’s also up for overall Best Picture. It also earned nods for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

And while it’s still hanging around in one Columbus theater, it also recently dropped on HBO Max in what’s likely a push to get more buzz for its Oscar prospects. The movie has proven a darling with critics, and while it likely won't hit with casual audiences, it rewards patience in developing a melancholic tale that takes its time unfolding.

Adapted from Haruki Murakami's short story (and incorporating themes from other Murakami shorts), the film focuses on renowned actor and stage producer Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). The events of the film mostly occur two years after the unexpected death of Yusuke’s wife, when Yusuke has taken up residence in Hiroshima to direct a production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” for a theater festival.

The festival assigns a quiet young woman named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura) to act as Yusuke’s chauffeur, driving his own beloved red Saab 900 (which becomes both a primary setting for scenes and its own character, in a way).

As tensions rise during rehearsals for the play, Yusuke and Misaki form an unlikely friendship and bond over shared tragic events and an unyielding grief that hangs over both of them like a cloud.

I’ve frequently lamented the challenges of page-to-screen adaptation because so often it involves works that are too long or dense to fully translate onscreen. In the case of “Drive My Car,” it’s a three-hour film based on a short story. To say that Hamaguchi gives the material room to breathe is an understatement.

The film is, as I like to say, deliberately paced, unfolding slowly across vignettes that come together (mostly) in the full picture. It’s also a film where the opening credits occur a full 40 minutes in, so home viewing at least allows you to pause for your own bathroom breaks.

The movie is powered by the understated performances of its two primary leads, both of whom employ a lot of stone-faced stoicism, their expressions concealing waves of grief with which neither has fully dealt.

It also features some absolutely beautifully written dialogue, with Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe handling the adaptation. At times, the language can feel a bit too stagey, but it’s always carefully crafted. Likewise, the gorgeous cinematography doesn’t waste a shot, particularly in how it frames conversations (yes, frequently in cars).

A rewarding experience awaits if the runtime doesn’t scare you off. And a snowy weekend of Ohio False Spring is a perfect excuse to catch up before the Oscars.

“Drive My Car”

Now playing at Marcus Crosswoods and streaming on HBO Max

4 stars out of 5