In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 science-fiction classic Stalker, the “Stalker” of the title is a guide who leads people through “The Zone,” a heavily guarded and mysterious no-man’s-land, featuring a room where they’ll be granted their deepest wishes. It looks like an ordinary rural wasteland, but it’s a special place, where the rules that govern our world don’t apply. Keeping Stalker in mind might be the best way to navigate My Joy, an enormously challenging but equally promising debut feature from Russian director Sergei Loznitsa, who guides viewers into similarly perplexing territory. With a title that’s meant to be ironic—one of its few absolute certainties—My Joy has been described as an extended Twilight Zone episode, but while it creates its own eerie, surreal plane, it’s also far more random, filled with vignettes that connect loosely and ambiguously.
After eluding the authorities, à la Stalker, young truck driver Viktor Nemets chooses to head down a forbidden road and embarks on an episodic journey that creeps to the edge of the surreal and supernatural without going over the line. The driver encounters characters who recall troubling incidents in Russia’s past and present, including various hitchhikers and vagabonds, as well as an underage prostitute and hostile soldiers. But Loznitsa ultimately doesn’t shadow Nemets that closely; he shifts into discursive bits like a scene of two prostitutes talking shop, or extensive World War II flashbacks, none of which seem to connect to the main thread. An incident halfway through the film appears to send it entirely off the rails, until a tense climactic scene brings the whole thing full circle.
Through his disturbing, abstract, otherworldly progression into darkness, Loznitsa gives himself the opportunity to comment freely on a country haunted by history and infested by corruption, decay, violence, and inhumanity. In that sense, My Joy has the liberated feel of a road movie, albeit one that keeps jumping into different cars along the way. Those schooled in Eastern European history may have better luck deciphering it, but what keeps it compelling throughout is Loznitsa’s direction, which favors sophisticated long takes and particularly suspenseful use of foreground and background action. His next film should be a doozy.