8-9:45 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17

It's not easy to sit down on Saturday night with a movie whose title is an elemental reference to weapons-grade plutonium. But don't let that prevent you from checking out "Pu-239," a wrenching and powerful new HBO Films original whose stars are all unknowns and whose executive producers include George Clooney, Steven Soderbergh and Peter Berg.

This isn't fact-based (thank God) but adapted from a short story by author Ken Kalfus about one man's nightmare brush with an unstable Russian nuclear infrastructure and the fateful choice he makes to try to provide for his family after he's gone. Often uncomfortable to watch, the film is more emotionally than physically graphic, but on that score it delivers a devastating wallop that feels all too real. As such, it's a typically high-quality piece of filmmaking that has the tone and pacing of an indie feature.

Written and directed by Scott Z. Burns -- one of the producers of the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" (for which he earned the Humanitas Prize) and writer of "The Bourne Ultimatum" -- "Pu-239" is boosted by sterling performances and exceptional cinematography that sharply captures the bleak, washed-out ambiance of its Eastern European location (shot in Bucharest and Moscow). It stars Paddy Considine as Timofey Berezin, an engineer in a dilapidated post-Soviet nuclear power plant who is exposed to a deadly radiation dose while struggling to avert a plant meltdown. Made a scapegoat and suspended without pay, he quickly comes to realize that he has only hours to live and makes the decision to steal some plutonium in an attempt to make a quick score on the open market. His plan is to earn $30,000 to give a measure of security to his wife (Radha Mitchell) and young son.

In order to peddle the nuclear material, Berezin is forced to befriend a wannabe mobster named Shiv (Oscar Isaac), whose world is all small-time business shakedowns and hanging on the coattails of a brutal hood, Vlad (Jason Flemyng) -- a dude so evil that he demands money from the owner of an injured dog for denting his car with its battered body. Quickly wasting away from radiation sickness, the classy Berezin is driven to desperate measures by a corrupt system. But it kills him even faster to have to spend his final hours with hoods and hookers, even if the bungling Shiv himself is far more bluster than bite.

That "Pu-239" is not going to end happily, or even semi-tidily, is pretty much a given -- cautionary tale that it is. It's increasingly painful to watch our dour protagonist's rapid deterioration, with Considine turning in stellar work as a man on a time-sensitive mission.

This is not to say that some parts of the film don't ring a bit false. While we understand why Berezin has to place his trust in the utterly unctuous Shiv, it's difficult to imagine that even the lowlifes in this world wouldn't stop to acknowledge why this man was dying before their eyes. These people are somewhat too dense and insensitive to even be believed. But in the main, Burns' evocative teleplay and straight-ahead direction are more than sufficient to fashion a compelling drama of immense despair.

Beacon Films and Section Eight Prods.
Executive producers: Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, Peter Berg, Zanne Devine, Armyan Bernstein, Ben Cosgrove, Jennifer Fox
Producers: Charlie Lyons, Miranda de Pencier, Guy Jon Louthan
Writer-director: Scott Z. Burns
Based on the short story by: Ken Kalfus
Director of photography: Eigil Bryld
Production designer: Tom Meyer
Editors: Tatiana S. Riegel, Leo Trombetta
Costume designer: Oana Paunescu
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Casting: Kate Dowd
Timofey Berezin: Paddy Considine
Marina Berezin: Radha Mitchell
Shiv: Oscar Isaac
Vlad: Jason Flemyng
Oksana: Melanie Thierry
Yegor: Jordan Long