Gareth Kent reviews Nuclear, a psychological thriller from Catherine Linstrum about familial trauma with cryptic undercurrents.
Director Catherine Linstrum’s feature-length debut, Nuclear, is a dark psychoanalytic thriller that explores domestic abuse and post-traumatic stress with haunting implications trembling just beneath its surface. Set within the isolated rural Welsh landscape of Snowdonia, the film follows 14-year-old Emma (Emilia Jones) as she flees with her mother (Sienna Guillory) to escape the pursuit of Emma’s abusive half-brother (Oliver Coopersmith) after his ferocious assault on their mother. Nuclear is, however, quick to suggest things aren’t quite as they appear thanks to the sibylline presence of a spectral figure haunting the duo from the onset.
The film posits its central conflict immediately, where Emma and her mother escape to an abandoned religious retreat. From here, Emma leaves her mother in the refuge while she explores outside and befriends an unnamed young man (George MacKay) with a predilection for scaling tall buildings. Quickly taken with the boy’s unfettered way of living, Emma asks for a tattoo (but settles on an ear-piercing) and sets in motion a plan to climb the decommissioned Trawsfynydd nuclear power station. Meanwhile, her mother, both traumatised and trying to justify her son’s actions to herself, is besieged by spectral visitations that cause her mental instability to spiral further. Gradually, we observe how the relationship between mother and daughter breaks down; the mother’s eagerness to return to her son, while her daughter seeks to liberate herself from the household entirely. Indeed, despite Emma never really getting to know her new friend, not even learning his name, she is quick to partake in any activity he suggests other than drugs (which remind her too much of her brother). Ultimately, the refuge Emma and her mother sought only isolates them from each other while simultaneously functioning as an unconscious landscape where each struggles separately to address their trauma.
Contributing to Nuclear’s general sense of uncanniness is that Emma is the only character gifted with a name. The young man Emma befriends makes a cursory mention of a friend from Ukraine called Anton, but this alleged confidant never actually appears in any capacity. Strangely, the lack of names serves to produce an alienating effect on the narrative, whereby friends and family relations are all called into question, and the viewer can never be sure of what is real or a figment of Emma’s – or her mother’s – imagination. Ultimately, this helps highlight the central motif of isolation with remarkable ease. Of course, some wise production choices are also integral in creating a pervasive sense of isolation throughout the film. Typically, the camera centres itself too close to Emma when indoors, while tight corridors and village streets continuously obscure her surroundings. In other instances, Nuclear utilises oppressive wide-open spaces, such as a lightless road shrouded by dark and the ebb and flow of shadows against the car light. The purpose is the same regardless, simultaneously evoking a sense of anxiety of entrapment and exposure.
The thematic use of isolation in Nuclear is amplified through its ambient-infused musical score which is dominated by an overwhelming sense of foreboding. Nuclear is an exceedingly quiet film, and when music is utilised, it is through sparse and throbbing industrial soundscapes, bringing to mind haunting images of a pulsating metallic heart. Other times, Nuclear employs string instruments that resonate during moments of tension, as seems customary to the thriller genre. Less prototypical is Nuclear‘s almost nocturnal sense of ambience. The vast majority of the film is completely quiet, save for the sound of wind rustling leaves against windows and the barely audible sound of sirens ringing out in the distance (an uncanny admittance to a night-time rural retreat).
Nuclear also seeks to replicate the mood and visual aesthetic of a nuclear winter despite being set in modern-day Wales. Indeed, Nuclear makes frequent allusions to the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters and even employs the same washed-out colour palette commonly featured in post-apocalyptic films such as The Road. Of course, Nuclear is not a post-apocalyptic movie about any future or past nuclear disaster. Instead, Nuclear juxtaposes a family’s tragic destruction to nuclear disasters – a veritable leakage in the nuclear family. While the metaphorical significance of the film’s title is simple enough to determine, it is less forthcoming elsewhere and opts for an ambiguous approach to storytelling. So it is unfortunate that many of the plot-twists can feel predictable, and we have certainly seen them used effectively elsewhere several times.
Nuclear is, overall, a film that will appeal primarily to those interested in dark psychological thrillers with cryptic plots or with a penchant for psychoanalytical readings. The film is a slow burner for sure and hinges on its various plot twists (particularly one boldly left open to interpretation). Nuclear indeed treads some familiar ground, but it still stands firmly on its own feet thanks to its disquieting tone, superb production, and excellent performances.
Nuclear, directed by Catherine Linstrum, is available now on digital platforms.
Gareth Kent is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.