This film is doing a lot. Every one of the one hundred and forty two minutes (that’s nearly two and a half hours) is highly charged ー with drama, with plot, with sweeping vistas, and quite often with all three. It is an assault on your emotional sensibility from the very first scene, which culminates in a graphically violent and sexual murder. To take a step back and to look at what exactly this art is doing (if anything) is to be left with a myriad of questions. Crucially, I found myself wondering: is any of this really worth it?
Based on Ching Nakamura’s manga series Gunjō, Ride or Die (Riyuchi Hiroki, 2021) has a very strong premise: in modern day Japan, red-headed lesbian Rei reunites with her childhood crush Nanae to discover her living with a violently abusive husband. After being asked by Nanae (somewhat flippantly) if she will kill him for her, Rei actually does, to Nanae’s surprise. As the two run away together, fleeing from police, a romantic relationship evolves, interrupted by flashbacks to their early friendship as teenagers.
Economic inequality drives the majority of the many, many complications in this story. In flashback scenes and through storytelling on the trip, we learn that Rei’s family is well-off, whereas Nanae’s is not: Rei’s family paid for her to go to the fancy school where the two met, whereas Nanae attended on a sports scholarship. Nanae’s family is abusive; tragically, even if she were old enough, she couldn’t afford to move out. Teenage Rei, friendless and unable to explore her sexuality, offers Nanae a complex deal which boils down to having sex with her for money.
Immediately, there is a power imbalance at the foundation of their relationship. In the present day, Rei is wildly emotionally unhinged (which we’ll get into in a bit), and sometimes threatens Nanae with violence during their journey ー she even physically intimidates her to the point of hysteria in the very same home where Nanae grew up being regularly beaten by her father.
Inequality persists at the heart of what turns out to be an incredibly complex relationship. Never chastised (and barely addressed) by the film, this problematic dynamic is inescapable when considering the story and what it is trying to do. As I rifle through all of the following triumphs from Ride or Die ー cinematography, camerawork, rich thematic exploration, emotional resonance, and more ー I can’t help but let such an inner darkness taint my overall impression. For now though, let’s explore what the film did well ー or at least what it did confidently.
Ride or Die gives some undeniably captivating visuals from the very first scene. The opening shot lasts over four minutes and tracks Rei getting out of a taxi and walking into a bar. The camera moves as a person would, acting as an extra character stalking Rei; it follows her through the bar, occasionally straying from her route but never letting her out of shot. We see Rei from behind a bartender, in profile, or from across an empty bar. Sounds ebb and flow around us as we walk through a scene of intense realism.
Planted in this moment without context, we search for clues in Rei’s surroundings and calculated facial expressions. It is only once she interacts with the man at the bar (who we discover after is Nanae’s abusive husband) that we switch to another camera. Next, uncomfortably close close-ups draw us in to analyse their faces as we try to figure out what is going on and how this might fit into the film’s premise.
Top Tip: Beware the graphic str*ight sex scene 10 minutes in.
Soon we lead into the murder scene which drives the film’s journey: Rei seduces Nanae’s husband and kills him while they are having sex, ending up drenched in his blood, sobbing uncontrolably at the weight of her actions. Later plot holes aside, it is an incredibly bold opening, and the way its shot makes such a starting sequence that much more intriguing.
Motifs from this opening appear again throughout Rei and Nanae’s escape, reminding us of the dark consequences of their actions. In one tracking shot, we follow their car, seemingly from the perspective of another on the road. Long shots also make several appearances: as the women drive across a bridge, a drone follows them. Here, we start with a super-wide shot from behind, pan into a close-up of the car in motion, and then retreat to a super-wide from the front. The cinematography gives us many moments of beauty too: sunrises, lakes and sweeping vistas all feature, providing a respite to the dramatic emotional turmoil.
Biggest Gay Mood: crying in the shower
The themes of sex and death from this opening sequence also feature heavily in the rest of the film. Reunited after the murder, Rei is showering in a hotel room when Nanae joins her in the bath. Here, in a moment that could be sensitive and intimate, we instead see damage. Contained within this bath are two bodies defiled by the same man (that is, Nanae’s husband): Rei in his blood, Nanae in bruises from his beatings. Rei can wash off the physical evidence, whereas Nanae cannot, and she must wait for her body to repair itself. The two women’s unhinged emotional states make it evident that the inner pain caused by their interactions with this man will take much longer to heal.
Sex frames both narrative and motive in Ride or Die: the film opens with Rei and Nanae’s huband and ends with Rei and Nanae. Both of these sex scenes are violent and dramatic in different ways. Throughout the film, and even whilst they are having sex, the women play with ideas of death and dying, discussing the matter flippantly, as if they don’t care either way if they live or die. Disconnected from mainstream society, they continue their journey as if in a haze, uncaring and even unaware of consequences.
Kiko Mizuhara (Rei) and Honami Satô (Nanae) both explore impressive emotional ranges in Ride or Die. They cycle quickly between withdrawing into complete emotional absence, breaking into hysterical laughter, and just straight up having a breakdown. Rei especially is wildly unhinged throughout the film and keeps us on our toes. It is often affronting, but that is surely the point: both women are in emotional crises, and it shows.
They also have moments of great chemistry together, toxic relationship aside. As the women draw closer, they start to become unanimous: they argue less and less, and seem to be tending towards the same ultimate conclusion. Near the end, after staying overnight in a beach hut and being physically close for hours, Rei goes off to use the bathroom. In a slightly surreal show of their spiritual connection, Nanae starts singing under her breath after Rei has walked out of earshot: she sings CHE.R.RY, a song full of history for the couple. In the next shot, walking a few hundred feet away, Rei continues the song where Nanae has left off. It seems they are literally in tune with one another.
Alongside these complex emotional journeys, Ride or Die plays with narrative forms in an engaging way. The film consistently thwarts expectation through surprising choices ー we travel down unexpected routes, the women change their minds constantly over what they want to do and why, and again and again we are led to believe one thing and then shown another. The women’s relationship oscillates dramatically too, and we witness a non-linear progression that challenges perception: they draw together and apart almost without reason. Altogether the film is bold in how it throws away the norms of romantic storytelling.
However, when all of this is thrown away, what is left? This is the question most difficult to answer. The consistently surprising narrative choices are certainly engaging in this film, but I don’t think I understand their purpose. Of course, art does not have to have a purpose or an intention to function as art ー but, without any drive, the core of this film felt empty.
Rei is neither a likeable nor a relatable character; this is not inherently a bad thing in storytelling, but it certainly makes it harder to figure out what the film is trying to do by committing to a journey with her and the woman she has threatened and even abused ー also someone she has murdered for, let’s not forget. The central relationship ends up deeply toxic from both sides, and so we are left with nothing to root for.
My main gripe arises when the central relationship presents itself as something we should be rooting for.
Without a strong core to revolve around, Ride or Die’s exceptional cinematography, narrative distortion and acting performance end up spiralling further and further away from any sense of cohesion and satisfaction. There are many exciting elements, but a hollow center ultimately makes the two and a half hours a hard sell.