Called a “quiet masterpiece” by The New York Times Times co-chief film critic Manohla Dargis, the loudest visual in Drive My Car is a glossy shade of cherry red. It comes courtesy of a Saab 900 Turbo, the adored possession of protagonist Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Yūsuke never strays from the film's low visual tone. He, too, is subdued, desaturated, and heavy with grief. His clothes are monochromatic tones of navy and black, almost blending him into his environment. He floats through the film like a ghost outfitted in semi-constructed blazers. Occasionally, Yūsuke will emerge from his downtrodden trance, usually with a stinging joke or a rare flash of tranquility when being chauffeured in his beloved car.
I won't give away the plot details but will say Drive My Car is focused on love, loss, art, and the distance (or lack thereof) between those things. Early in the movie, we see Yusuke's home; It is a modernist affair, with a floating staircase and expansive windows. The decor is a mix of minimalist goods: Eames shell chairs, an Ikea Lixhult cabinet, and a wood-framed sofa that might be from Muji. The office is full of plain-looking, well-designed furniture; a desk, bookcase, and stereo shelving in similar shades of wood. When Yūsuke relocates to Hiroshima for a theater residency, he moves into a barely furnished apartment overlooking the water. Throughout the film, the interiors remain sparsely adorned.
Even the bright red Saab is driven quietly. Neither Yūsuke nor his appointed chauffeur Misaki (Toko Miura) drives with a heavy foot or a freewheeling hand. "I sometimes forget that I'm even riding in a car," he says of Misaki’s ability. In the nighttime sequences, Yūsuke's dark outfits bleed into the car's interior, rendering him as a floating head in the backseat. When the film cuts to exterior shots of the bright vehicle veering on pavement highways, we sense vibrance and life, a kinetic motion not felt elsewhere in the film.
The Swedish automobile company Saab introduced the 900 in May 1978, a new-ish model that was based on the existing 99 model. One of the most noticeable changes was the re-designed front end, lengthened to meet new safety regulations. That, and the front windshield, which had a much steeper curve than most cars of the era. It was designed by Saab's chief designer Björn Envall, who started sketching early drawings while on holiday in Mallorca. The interiors were reworked, too. For the dashboard, designers and engineers placed the gauges and controls according to the frequency of use to minimize the time a driver would have to divert their focus from the road. (The much-used radio is placed high in the dashboard.)
The interior of a vintage Saab is a tight space, yet it never seems to feel suffocating. For Yūsuke, his car is a sanctuary of sorts. We see him listen (and listen again) to recorded audio of the play he is directing. He bonds slowly, then deeply, with Misaki. His eyes show a sadness and anger that never entirely dissipates throughout the three-hour film. The Times critic also described the visuals of this film—the people, interiors, landscapes—as "unforced minimalism." The phrase fits so well and somehow feels like an applicable descriptor for the Swedish design thinking that led to the 900.
The visuals have a meditative quality to them, but the movie isn't without thorny moments. Its plot is rife with low-grade chaos, even if it never spirals out of control. Yūsuke’s vintage red car glides, even if it never fully roars. One Saab fanatic described the 900 Turbo as having "a lot of low-end grunt and a punch when the turbo spools up." It feels accurate to say the same about Drive My Car.