Harsh Blow: Ken Kalfus’s PU-239

HBO’s new feature movie PU-239 is based on a short story by Ken Kalfus, whose dark comedy A Disorder Peculiar to our Country was one of my favorite novels of 2006. PU-239 is no kinder to its characters than Disorder, but this time the setting is post-Soviet Russia and the stakes are higher: a young husband and father is exposed to a toxic dose of radiation in a nuclear power plant accident, and when the bureaucrats who run the plant refuse to compensate him so that his wife and son can survive his eventual death he steals a tube of plutonium and travels to a city bazaar to attempt to sell it — he doesn’t care to whom — by holding up a cardboard sign reading “PU-239”.

A local black marketeer and amateur criminal sees him and demands “Pu? What is Pu?”. This obnoxious young criminal seems hardly capable of handling a nuclear sale, but other options are slim, and the radiation-sickness victim and the young thug begin working together to find a buyer. The horrific results are funny to watch … until you think about how much damage is done. That combination of wit and utter human devastation appears to be a Ken Kalfus signature, and while some reviewers of this new film have compared it to A Clockwork Orange (because of the brutality of the prowling thugs who work the local black market) a better reference point might be Harold Pinter. As in a typical Pinter play, the characters are so morally isolated that they can barely communicate with each other. The plutonium seller wants $30,000 for his stash, and his criminal associate naturally increases this to $50,000 but then eagerly attempts to complete a sale for $8000. Nothing matters, nobody is listening to anybody else, and by the end of this movie nothing is solved and a whole lot of terrible new problems are created.

That’s the world according to Ken Kalfus, and I highly recommend PU-239, a disturbing television movie about nuclear proliferation and human frailty.

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