There’s something about the road that changes people. For nearly a century film has depicted the power of the road and by extension the road film in all of its varied subgenres. One of my favorites in this ilk is the fabled “Lovers-on-the-run film”, which sits at the intersection of crime and romance. Whether it’s Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Clarence and Alabama, or Queen and Slim, the motivations are obvious, the intention is clear. No matter the time and place of the story the car becomes representative as an object that promises to give our star crossed lovers that thing that is so often lacking in their lives: freedom.
The conventions of the road film genre stretch past the intimacy of lovers though, they’re so widely known. Themes of alienation, lawlessness, tensions within oneself and their culture, that existential air occupied by deeply frustrated characters. They delve into rebellion, self discovery, redemption, the masculine fascination with car culture. The texts are rich and detailed in this way. They’re movies that are often just as concerned with exploring the world within the close confines of the car, as they are with the sprawling landscape that looms outside it. The landscape whose quiet corners are occupied by shoddy motels, and late night diners, and coffee shops. Those liminal spaces that give one the transient opportunity to find themselves.
In a genre that can be so obvious at times, so riddled with motifs and expectations ingrained into the very way we consume cinema and approach storytelling, it can be hard for new players to shock or inspire us. So hard for new works to expound on untreked territory whilst remaining true to the conventions that made us fall in love with the genre in the first place. And then, there’s drive my car. A film that isn’t so much about cars as it is about communication.
Okay, I lied. It is about cars, the saab 900 turbo in particular, a red classic from the late 70s. It's also about Yusuke Kafuku, an actor and theater director hired to direct a multilingual adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. It’s about the untimely demise of his wife Oto, 2 years earlier. A screenwriter who conceived her greatest stories mid and post coitous. It’s about the lasting sting of her infidelity, a fact Yusuke eventually became eternally aware of but never mentioned, fully emptimozing the broken notion of communication that has dominated his life, the kind of communication that we ourselves can wrestle with on a daily basis, that extends from the most intimate corners of our lives to the theater stage itself.
We see it in Yusuke's approach to direction. The structural perspective we see him take in the script reading room, stronger emphasis on word timing and line syncopation than on body language and non verbal cues, a fact that the other actors lament concerning his directing process. It’s this distinction that points to what made Yusuke’s relationship so fraught in the first place. He had this inability to look at his relationship with Oto past the surface. This predisposition to ignore the physical language of communication that so often can be more real and telling than the actual words. More truthful. It’s far too easy, especially in relationships to say one thing and mean another, and when you hold the physical actual words to a higher standard than the actions that surround them you get a language that is ultimately lacking in substance. I think that’s what makes performances like Lee Yoona’s, the mute actor in Uncle Vanya, one of the most powerful at the center of the story. More than her speaking counterparts she is able to push past the physical language of words. Reveal an intimacy and connection to the story and emotion that transcends the bounds of language.
Why is it so powerful? Well theater and film do it all the time. In so many ways the two mediums exist as the foremost paragons for transformative language. It not just what someone says it's how someone says it, the body language that accompanies it, a bold gesture, a raised voice, an imperceptible vulnerability that is still felt by an audience anyways. They reveal that language alone isn’t enough to understand someone. Words written on a page are static, unmoving, unwavering, but to give those words living breathing space to exist within the context of accompanying actions is to allow oneself to get closer to truth.
It’s in that red Saab 900 turbo that Yusuke begins to understand this. The long drives that were originally defined by the tapes he played, those lasting memories of his passed wife become replaced with conversations with his driver Misaki, and a present bond that grows out of their shared trauma. Outside the car the environments of Hiroshima are sterile and clean, dominated by large pristine white buildings jutting out from the foundations of the city, inside the car is a space that is emotionally messy and vulnerable. A space once filled with sanctity and isolation, then invaded by a stranger, then inhabited by a friend. A space where real emotion and lasting connection can’t help but be made, as we attempt to separate from a past that no longer can define or control us. A space that’s as liminal as the shoddy motels, and late night diners, and coffee shops that road film protagonists can't help but find themselves in again, and again, and again. And more than any of those others films Drive My Car understands that words only tell half the story