Anyone who admired the chutzpah of “Sorcerer” but thought that William Friedkin went off the rails in remaking “The Wages of Fear” will have an easier time with “The Load,” another wartime thriller largely confined to the inside of a truck.
Ognjen Glavonić’s narrative feature debut, which premiered at Cannes last year before continuing its tour of the festival circuit at Toronto and New Directors/New Films, concerns a long-haul drive from Kosovo to Belgrade during NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia. Behind the wheel is middle-aged Vlada (Leon Lučev), who’s been tasked with covertly transporting, well, something. What it is, he has no idea.
They say that the journey counts more than the destination, and so it is here. The plot, such as it is, kicks into gear upon the discovery of a fire blocking the main route, necessitating one detour after another for our intrepid driver. As for what he’s actually transporting, that remains a mystery — and an intriguing one at that, as when Vlada is pulled over and, upon producing a document he was given along with his unknown cargo, receives an apology from the officer with no questions asked. It’s a bit of a MacGuffin, but the mystery swirling around this payload is more than enough to capture your interest (and, when necessary, divert it elsewhere).
Glavonić’s style feels indebted to that of Sergei Loznitsa, who’s spent much of his career documenting and dramatizing historical turmoil on the Continent, but he forges his own path. We follow Vlada closely on this arduous journey, with long shots and a lack of non-diegetic music lending a sense of docu-real urgency to every bump on the road both literal and figurative; it’s like we’re front-seat passengers, and though it induces much anxiety, “The Load” compels us to keep both eyes forward lest we miss whatever might happen next.
Vlada’s actual passenger, a teenager named Paja (Pavle Čemerikić) who scores a ride by ensuring his skeptical driver that he knows an alternate route to Belgrade, is a musician whose band broke up when one of the other members moved. It’s one of the few times we hear about anything that isn’t related to either the task at hand or the war more generally, and the conversation passes quickly, almost mournfully; the war has yet to end, but several ways of life are already long gone.
There are many ways to depict war, and Glavonić has opted for one of the most elliptical. The only bombs we see are far in the background during the opening moments as Vlada’s truck slowly makes its way toward the camera. Life both does and does not go on during such times, even if survivors are increasingly rare.
Vlada may not know what his cargo is, but he’d be a fool not to suspect that something is amiss. (Here’s a hint: Glavonić’s prior film, the documentary “Depth Two,” was about mass graves discovered after this very conflict’s conclusion.) Lučev’s performance is, like the film itself, powerful in an austere way that draws attention to itself by almost seeming determined not to. The further inward he turns and the more laconic his brief conversations become, the more you want to turn over his every action in your mind and examine it for clues.
That “The Load” is set 20 years ago rather than today has a troubling implication: countless variations on this story have taken place, perhaps even are taking place right now, at risk of never being told. This one has a simple enough trajectory, but getting from point A to point B proves quietly compelling.