My Joy follows the story of Georgy, a young Russian driver. Charged with a cargo delivery, his route takes him through a rural backwater where grinding poverty reigns, corruption is rife and violence never far from erupting. He is to learn more about the place than he could ever have wished.
Cinematographer Oleg Mutu has done quietly brilliant work, with a wonderful eye for texture in weatherbeaten doors, stippled snow and worn faces. Shot half in winter, half in summer, the film holds the beauty of the landscape up for contrast with the harsh realities of those living in it.
Scenes are subtly, unobtrusively crafted to rack up tension, and impart information about what’s happening out of frame. Skillful use of long takes – tracking from Georgy’s perspective or from behind a character’s shoulder – makes for a natural feel but also a queasy claustrophobia. There’s no turning from the dark, dark path ahead.
While the gloom here is not quite unremitting, it is served in increasing measures. The glints of humour easing the chill come only from believable conversation and interactions. This is a land where brutality is part of the fabric of daily life, and no good deed goes unpunished – flashbacks to wartime (never far from the mind) show that this is nothing new. A rambling speech on the importance of not meddling, although played for laughs, might be the closest thing to a moral to be found here.
The plot, simultaneously epic and minute in scale, enjoys laying on dramatic irony, but also pulling the rug from underfoot. The tone is set from the grim opening scene, but Georgy’s journey into the realities of a strange and savage world still shocks, leaving a feeling that he is only a central thread in a very unhappy tapestry. Although the ending closes a circle after a fashion, it’s left to the audience to draw their own conclusions. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, previously known for his documentaries, has here crafted a sweeping, richly surprising first feature film.