"Loveless" begins and ends with virtually the same series of shots: a wintry riverbank somewhere in Russia. In the opening sequence, there's a sense of quiet foreboding, of some evil lurking in, or just beyond, the snow-covered trees. By the time the film, which centers on the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy, has returned to the site, you will better recognize — while still, perhaps, not being able to name — the grim malaise that's only hinted at in the gray and bloodless prologue.
It is an evil not supernatural, but utterly, devastatingly banal.
A 2018 Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, "Loveless" comes, unsurpri singly, from Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, who has the instincts of a contract killer: He is both ruthless and cleanly efficient when it comes to skewering contemporary Russian society. In 2015, Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan," about one man's quixotic quest to save his house from demolition, was also up for an Academy Award. In 2011, his "Elena," about a woman who resorts to shocking measures when her inheritance is threatened, was a prizewinner at Cannes. Both films interrogated notions of morality and expediency, casting a gaze on human behavior that is dispassionate and harshly unforgiving.
"Loveless" gets underway in the apartment of Boris and Zhenya (Aleksey Rozin and Maryana Spivak), an unhappily married couple who are in the midst of an ugly divorce. She's full of barely disguised venom, while he seethes in suppressed resentment. Both are already involved with other lovers, and neither wants custody of their son, Alexey, whose hot, silent tears — shed behind the closed door of his darkened bedroom, as his comfortably well-off parents argue just outside — are tough to stomach.
In short order, the boy vanishes.
This triggers a pro forma police investigation, by a blunt-spoken cop who announces, essentially, that nothing will be done by the professionals. Instead, a search party will be formed, as is the norm, by civilian volunteers, coordinated by a walkie-talkie-packing urban cowboy (Aleksey Fateev) in a blaze-orange parka. His experience with what we are told are all-too-common disappearances of children is less reassuring than deeply, queasily unsettling. As the search goes on — moving from the exurban dump outside Moscow inhabited by Alexey's paranoid grandmother (Nataliya Potapova), to an abandoned building used by his schoolmates as a clubhouse, to a hospital and, at one point, the morgue — the sense of hopelessness grows.
As "Loveless" probes the deepening mystery, it also invites us to speculate about how the promise of this young family turned, so quickly, to rot. Zhenya, as we see, is constantly absorbed by her cellphone, where she scrolls through social-media posts. Boris is distracted by the demands of his pregnant girlfriend (Marina Vasileva) and his employer, a devout Christian who will probably fire him if his divorce becomes public.
Alexey, it seems, is someone else's problem.
But Zvyagintsev is less interested in the procedural and personal aspects of the story than its political overtones: "Loveless" takes place in 2012, against the backdrop of a contentious U.S. presidential election (featured in TV news reports) and a frenzy of Russian media stories focusing on the coming "apocalypse," said to have been predicted for that year by the ancient Mayan calendar. One scene, near the end of the film, shows Zhenya running in place on a treadmill while wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the word "Russia."
Stagnation, collapse, heartlessness — whether on an individual level or a national one — are the true subjects of Zvyagintsev's film. Its message isn't subtle, but it is delivered with deadly, haunting finality.
"Loveless" — 3.5 stars
Running time: 2:08
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, coarse language and a brief disturbing image)
Opens: Friday at the Music Box, 3733 N. Southport Ave., www.musicboxtheatre.com. In Russian with subtitles.