An odd little film that somehow manages to be heartbreaking, darkly funny and uplifting, often in the same scene, Pu-239, the feature film directorial debut of producer Scott Z. Burns, walks a razor-thin line between sad and serious. It's a fascinating balancing act to watch -- something like a Soviet-themed riff on Elaine May's cult classic Mikey & Nicky. Lost yet? I'll explain.
The fantastically underrated Paddy Considine stars as Timofey Berezin, a worker at a Russian nuclear facility in the mid-'90s who suffers exposure to a lethal dose of radiation, giving him just days to live. Acting quickly, Timofey steals 100 grams of weapons-grade plutonium (the Pu-239 of the title) and heads to Moscow, looking to sell it to the highest bidder, so that he may provide for his wife Marina (Radha Mitchell) and child after he dies.
It's in Moscow that Timofey hooks up with Shiv (the great Oscar Isaac), a jittery, devious wannabe-gangster who immediately latches onto Timofey as a possible source of cash. The pair then travel through the Russian underworld, racing against time as Timofey's body begins to fail him and Shiv's luck begins to run out. These parallel storylines play neatly off of the larger chaos in the background -- Russia picking up the pieces -- and the peripheral characters (Timofey's family; other gangsters). This grim, poignant tale about two men with nothing left to lose reaches the bittersweet conclusion it must, but not before doling a few scenes of absurdism that borders on surrealism and some fine acting from the two leads.
Pu-239 goes where it must (Burns adapted the screenplay from a short story by Ken Kalfus) but doesn't always follow the expected path -- the almost willful streak of bizarre humor (I won't ruin the climactic gag, such as it is, but let's just say it involves cocaine that's not really cocaine) slightly leavens the darker elements of the story, personified in Considine's brilliantly frayed work. He convincingly falls apart, just as his companion Shiv most desperately needs him to hold on. It's a small film that rewards patience, rather than those expecting a slick shoot-'em-up in mobbed-up Moscow; give Pu-239 some time and it will leave its mark on you.
Pu-239 is presented as originally broadcast on HBO, in a very crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film's various settings aren't bright and shiny, but rather drab and claustrophobic, yet the image never deteriorates into so much visual mush. The black levels are rock solid throughout and the detail is immaculate. A very solid visual representation of grim, moody material.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't have many instances to strut its stuff -- this is a film built on dialogue and the odd bit of period music -- but it does convey those elements clearly, with no distortion or drop-out. An optional Spanish Dolby 2.0 stereo track is on board, as are optional English and Spanish subtitles.
Not much here, except for a commentary track from director Burns and producer Peter Berg.
Pu-239 goes where it must (director Scott Z. Burns adapted the screenplay from a short story by Ken Kalfus) but doesn't always follow the expected path -- the almost willful streak of bizarre humor slightly leavens the darker elements of the story, personified in Paddy Considine's brilliantly frayed work. It's a small film that rewards patience, rather than those expecting a slick shoot-'em-up in mobbed-up Moscow; give Pu-239 some time and it will leave its mark on you. Recommended.