The open credits for Drive My Car don’t start until more than 30 minutes into the film. It is, without a doubt, one of the bolder choices in a film that is full of subtly bold choices and one that perfectly illustrates why the film is Flixist’s winner of the Golden Cage of Best Movie of 2021.
To be fair, the “story” of the film, involving Japanese playwright and actor Yûsuke Kafuku being driven around by Misaki Watari as he puts on a play in Hiroshima, doesn’t really start until then either. The credit crawl announces that the actual film is beginning now and everything you saw beforehand was a kind of dramatic open scene, the likes of which we usually associate with a Bond movie, except lacking the action. Traditionally, the moments we see in this opening — the death of Yûsuke Kafuku’s wife, her infidelity, the introduction of Koji as her lover — would be the kind of thing that was referred to but not seen as our lead characters unpacked their past. They would be the mystery that unfolded, the drive of the film.
However, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi isn’t interested in the drive (pun intended) of the film but instead the drive of humanity. He dives deeply into Kafuku’s pre-start-of-movie life to make us think we have an understanding of the character before the film starts, laying a groundwork that he peels back slowly, revealing a somber, enthralling study of love, loneliness, friendship, and the way our lives weave in and out of each other’s — all centering around an aging red Saab. Those layers are present throughout the film, from the performance within a performance to the recorded narrations from Oto reflecting the ongoing turmoil within the characters.
It is through this natural unpacking the slow, almost clunky direction that guides you through each moment that the film becomes a movie you sit through entranced, nearly hypnotized. The somber, muted performances are not here to grab you into the movie but open you up to its ideas. It’s a movie you don’t realize you’ve completely given into until the film ends and you can’t stop thinking of its nuances. It does this not by pulling you through it roughly but you are entirely in it.
At one point Kafuku expresses that Watari’s driving is so good that he forgets that he is in the car. Drive My Car makes you forget that you are in a movie. That these are characters, not real humans. That might be the rarest feat in all of cinema and if that doesn’t deserve to win the Golden Cage for Best Picture then nothing does.