One adjective critics try to avoid when describing movies is "interesting." What does "interesting" mean, anyway? Basically, it's a positive-sounding word that's vague enough to suggest a movie is taking chances or doing something different than the norm, not that the critic can make heads or tails out of what that something different is. More often than not, it's an example of lazy writing meant to make you sound smart. My guess is that "My Joy," the debut feature from Russian documentary filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, is going to be described as "interesting" by a lot of folks. Unfortunately, I may even do it myself.
Debuting at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "My Joy" is part fable, part allegory, part horror story. What it definitely isn't is crystal-clear in terms of its plot at all times. The film starts simply enough: Georgy (Viktor Nemets) is a truck driver out delivering his shipment, which takes him across Russia's rural hinterlands. The early sections of the movie play almost like a neorealist odyssey where everyone Georgy comes into contact with -- an old man who served in World War II, a teen prostitute -- is meant to represent different aspects of Russian society. But then it turns nighttime, and Georgy's truck starts to falter. And then he encounters three mysterious men, who may or may not wish him harm.
What happens then is a matter of some debate, but I won't go into it here -- partly because it takes away from the fun, and partly because I'm not entirely confident I know myself. Suffice it to say that about halfway through, "My Joy" changes radically. But what emerges most strongly is a sense of a Russia that, at least in its provinces, feels almost terrifyingly feral. Loznitsa has said that his movie's characters were inspired by the random people he encountered while making his documentaries, and from "My Joy" it's probably accurate to suggest that these people deeply disturbed him, whether it was the unscrupulous traffic cops or the impoverished villagers just trying to survive.
Loznitsa recruited acclaimed Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") to shoot the movie, and that (along with the fact that Romanian mainstay Vlad Ivanov is part of the cast) may lead some to assume that "My Joy" has the same sort of bare-bones, naturalistic tone that you see in the best of recent Romanian films. "My Joy" is equally raw, but Loznitsa is after something more atmospheric in his study of how lives can come in and out of focus the further they get from civilization. Like the world it depicts, "My Joy" is imposing and difficult to navigate. But while I don't think its insights are terribly revelatory, the journey is so dark and unpredictable -- particularly for Georgy -- that I find myself still arguing with the movie long after seeing it. To call " My Joy" "interesting" would be a backhanded compliment; it's more interesting than that. But it doesn't quite elevate itself to a more glowing adjective.
Here's the trailer. Watch out for strong language -- also, I think it gives away too much of the plot.