As we enter award season, many will likely view the unexpected Best Picture nominee Drive My Car alongside a slate of typically “big” Hollywood fare, flicks that blast the viewer with Spielbergian emotional gut punches and waves of sentimentality. By comparison, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s adaptation of a Haruki Murakami short story is quiet and contemplative, a slow burn that gradually exposes the inner lives of its guilt-ridden characters until it finally arrives at moments of showstopping catharsis. It’s a film that methodically works its way into the corners of your mind, its ruminations on the power of art, performance, and communication resulting in a thought-provoking drama that is easily one of the best movies from last year.

The story follows Yusuke Kafuku, a renowned theater director who, while reeling from a personal loss, decides to head a production of the Anton Chekov play Uncle Vanya. Hiding his unprocessed grief under an unchanging stoic demeanor, Kafuku’s only form of relief comes from long-distance drives in his sportscar-red Saab 900, a ritual that he follows with near-religious dedication. However, upon starting his new job, Kafuku learns that his sole method of therapy will be forfeit. Following a drunken mishap with a previous director, the theater will not allow him to drive his own car while he is working with them. Instead, he will be chauffeured by Misaki Watari, a young woman who is as laconic as she is skilled behind the wheel. While at first, the two make little effort to break the deafening silence between them, they slowly begin to confide their shared feelings of unresolved loss and guilt.

Despite a three-hour runtime and leisurely pacing, Hamaguchi’s direction remains engrossing throughout, in large part because it successfully contrasts its characters’ seemingly tranquil exteriors with their stormy inner lives. Long still shots and smooth editing create the feeling of gliding along a freshly paved road, the gentle score elevating these sequences into melancholic reveries. But despite its surface-level pleasantness, this is fundamentally a story about infidelity, death, and gnawing guilt, of flawed, complex people attempting to appear agreeable despite the roiling strife within. Hamaguchi, cinematographer Hidetoshi Shinomiya, and screenplay co-author Takamasa Oe make the most of this dynamic, the film’s patient aesthetics creating a sense of tension as these characters struggle to maintain their masks.

Because while many of those in this story are tight-lipped about their feelings, we see glimpses of their genuine thoughts as they prepare for Kafuku’s play. These actors speak in double entendres, their true selves seemingly bubbling to the surface during passionate performances. In particular, Kafuku has quite a bit in common with the anguished protagonist of Uncle Vanya, a role that he endlessly practices in his car despite having renounced the part. Much of the film’s complexity comes from how it communicates that art can drag out hidden emotions and force us to confront our buried feelings. These swirling ambiguities of intent in communication enrich the proceedings and amplify the sequences when these characters are finally earnest with one another.

Much of this sublime subtly comes from Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura’s performances as Kafuku and Misaki, respectively. Through tiny gestures and a general vacancy, they capture the isolating anguish of grief. Watching the two slowly confide in one another despite their deep regrets is one of the film’s great delights, and the deepening of their friendship feels all more moving given the story’s general asceticism.

At its heart, this is a film that understands the power of contrast. Much like the work of Dreyer, the slow pacing and austere performances set the stage for moments that elicit pure, unfiltered emotion. While the short story this adaptation draws from is relatively grounded for a Murakami work, it still evokes the novelist’s penchant for dream logic, juxtaposing pleasant aesthetics with allusions to its characters’ sometimes unsettling thoughts. It is a movie that sneaks up on you, slowly building out a pathos that you didn’t know was there until it reveals the power of its ruminations on regret and self-forgiveness in full force. In turn, it makes the audience confront the unavoidable pain of loss and conveys how art can help us sift through these complex feelings. And most importantly, it is about the fundamental need to communicate our experiences, pains, and wants. All in all, Drive My Car‘s gentle direction, subtle performances, and meditative cinematography make for a transcendent must-watch picture.

Rating: 4.5/5