Few things feel as lazy as a tidy film. When all the loose ends fall gracefully into place, and not a single plotline is left dangling, a story can feel too engineered to be real. People aren’t neat and tidy creatures: We do things that make no sense. We believe lies, and give in to unrequited love. But even when a movie’s story is totally fabricated, the emotions need to feel real to connect with the audience. We need the kind of mess that comes with actual relationships. The Netflix Japanese import Ride or Die is all about being messy. The emotions are messy, the getaway is messy. And the gallons of blood are messy too.
Directed by Ryuichi Hiroki, Ride or Die was adapted for the screen from Nakamura Ching’s manga series Gunjo. In the tradition of yuri manga stories, it focuses on a same-sex relationship, though this one’s far more complicated than a schoolgirl crush or a straightforward hookup.
Rei (Kiko Mizuhara) is introduced on her way into a cavernous underground nightclub. After doing a lap around the bar, in a single handheld take, she sets her sights on a man who’s sitting alone. It’s unclear what draws her to him in particular, but she gets his attention by buying him a drink, and soon, they’re in a cab together, and she’s gently pushing for him to take her home.
Their sexual rendezvous progresses quickly, and ends just as abruptly as they start. Rei maneuvers to get on top of him, and keeps riding him while she reaches for a scalpel. Though he fights back, she slashes his throat and stabs him with a broken wine glass, killing him swiftly. She’s naked, covered in blood, and in complete shock. What could compel her to do such a thing? Ride or Die spends the rest of the film answering that question.
The answer involves Rei’s high-school crush, Nanae (Honami Satô), and the long, complicated relationship between the two women, which starts back up after the man is dead. Rei and Nanae hit the road in Nanae’s convertible, and as they contemplate their future, they dive into their memories. Unlike the leads in Thelma & Louise, they don’t have a current relationship when they go on the run. When Nanae re-emerges in Rei’s life, it’s as if Rei’s seen a ghost. She had a happy life, with a tipsy, charming girlfriend, and a successful career as a plastic surgeon. But she’s willing to give it all up after just a single phone call from her past.
Ride or Die does an exceptional job of showing that Rei and Nanae’s past complications aren’t as simple as school-girl crushes or encounters with mean-girl cliques. They’re attracted to each other, but the gulf between them is steeped in homophobia (both internalized and cultural) and significantly, their class differences. Nanae grew up poor in an abusive house, and the cycles of abuse and financial struggle are never isolated from her current problems. She’s as much a product of her upbringing as Rei is the product of her affluent childhood.
Ultimately, these differences in class and sexual orientation are differences in power, and that ever-shifting dynamic is never lost on Rei and Nanae. Their issues aren’t as simple as “Who has money?” or “Who’s most accepted in our society?” They’re more about the questions of what that money or acceptance means to each of them, and how they can use that gravity to manipulate one another. They came from the same town, but they’re worlds apart in understanding what makes the other tick.
This push and pull between the women is amplified as they are on the run from the killing. Some vehicular hiccups make their travel more Planes, Trains & Automobiles than Mad Max as they switch from convertible to scooter to train to SUV. Along the way, their emotions seem to shift gears as frequently as their transportation, but that seems to be expected, if not intended by these two. The chaos is of their own design, and they lean into it. The near-manic soundtrack, which layers pop songs like The Cardigans’ “Love Fool” over fleeing a murder site just add to the tonal and emotional disruption.
Beyond the death and geysers of blood, the other major attention-attracting element of Ride or Die is the brazen nudity. Both of the women strip down to nothing multiple times in the film. Sometimes it’s for sex, sometimes for a shower, but all the flesh onscreen shops short of feeling exploitative. The nudity is used as a way to show vulnerability and honesty. Here are two women who play games with themselves and each other, but they frequently end up in states where they can’t hide from each other. Hiroki makes Ride or Die sexy when he wants it to be, he just understands that not all nudity is meant to be sexy.
While it might seem unfathomable to wish for a 142-minute film to be longer, it still feels like Ride or Die relies on an awful lot of shorthand to get down to that run time. Short encounters with Rei’s family and strangers along the journey point to an even deeper story that’s barely explored in this feature. An even leaner edit could have eliminated any potential distractions, but given its style with nuance and complication, the even deeper dive into this world seems more appealing than the minimalist version. Ride or Die strikes some strange tones, and features some questionable motives. But that just supports the world Rei and Nanae have crafted for themselves. It’s messy and imperfect, and in that way, it feels unnervingly real.
Ride or Die is streaming on Netflix now.