Written and directed by Sergei Loznitsa in 2010 and based on the writer/director's own personal experiences while travelling the roads of his native Russia over a ten year span, My Joy is one of the most atypical road movies you're likely to see anytime soon.
The story follows a Russian truck driver named Georgy (Viktor Nemets) who gets behind the wheel of his truck and sets out on the highway for what he anticipates will be just another day on the job. Things soon start to take some rather unlikely turns for the man, starting with a seemingly random spot check courtesy of the local police. From there, he meets a strange old man (Vladimir Golovin) who beguiles him with stories of war, and then befriends an underage prostitute (Olga Shuvalova) who winds up taking him to a village where things just get more unusual. When he winds up essentially stuck in this village, the scenes involving various hitchhikers and random strangers Georgy has meet before start to intertwine and the plot moves towards a seemingly inevitable but entirely appropriate conclusion.
Given that Sergei Loznitsa has a background as a documentary filmmaker, the movie seems grounded in reality, to an extent at least. As it makes some interesting nods to the past and then returns to the present it jumps around a bit and stretches reality to a certain extent, but you can see how the man behind this movie might have done earlier work in a more grounded fashion. As to the themes of the movies itself, the story heads quite quickly into some very dark places. There are moments of dark comedy peppered throughout the film but the frequent use of sharp violence to punctuate certain aspects of the narrative quickly jolts us back right where Loznitsa wants us to be. The film makes references to a lot of aspects of the history of Eastern Europe, particularly post World War II, that might get lost on North American audiences so there are probably bits and pieces some of us won't pick up on but the film makes some interesting points as to how this area of the world wrestles with its sense of identity and its own history and how, for better or worse, that identity and history have shaped it into the place it is today.
Viktor Nemets makes for a pretty solid lead here. He looks the part and acts rather well, especially once things start taking more and increasingly bizarre turns. As he starts to lose his grip on what's happening around him we can understand and feel for him, even if some of what he encounters is, in no uncertain terms, completely self inflicted. Loznitsa shoots all of this in an interesting style, using some uncomfortably long takes very effectively to make us as uncomfortable with some of this content as we should be while directing enough background action in a few core scenes to make sure we pay attention to the image as a whole and not just to the leads front and center in the frame. There's some very strong technique behind the camera of this film and on a visual level the movie is quite a success.
If at times the movie is a little long and if at times it is a little hard to connect with, we can at least equate part of that to cultural differences. There is a rather vulgar poetry to all of this that keeps it quite interesting, however, and a lot of the barbed points that are made towards the state of modern day Russia are fairly universal and valid as critiques of certain segments of society as a whole. A lot of the vignettes play more like disjointed short films and the narrative probably could have pulled some of this together and made for a more interconnected story as a whole but overall, despite the fact that this is a dark, and sometimes very depressing picture it is absolutely one well worth seeing from a director who shows some serious potential and who is obviously not afraid of courting controversy.
My Joy looks pretty good by way of Kino's 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There's a bit of grit here and there but detail is nice and even if the film is a picture heavy on earth tones, color reproduction looks accurate. Black levels are good and there are no issues with heavy edge enhancement or compression artifacts.
The only audio option on the disc is a Russian language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track with optional subtitles available in English only. While a 5.1 mix would probably have made some of the scenes in the film more interesting and offered more atmosphere, you can't fault the 2.0 track for clarity. The levels are nicely balanced, there are no issues with hiss or distortion and the dialogue has a nice strength to it. This isn't a mix that will floor you but it suits the sometimes low-fi nature of the film rather well.
Sadly the disc falls short in the extras department. While it's not barebones, it only contains a trailer for the feature and a still gallery. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
With My Joy you may think you know what you're getting into with the opening sequence setting the scene for what's to come, but the film takes some interesting and wholly appropriate twists as it works its way to its conclusion. Though it's maybe just a little bit longer than it needs to be it's a very well made picture that tells a unique story and features some strong performances. It's a little dark to catch on with the mainstream but those with an interest in how art and political history can mix in interesting ways should consider this one recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.