Nuclear (2020) Explained- A Heartbreaking Glimpse Into A Broken Family
Beautiful, poignant, and heartbreakingly sad, Nuclear is a highly allegorical story about love, loss, and the power of moving on.
Nuclear is a different kind of ghost story. It is one told through desperate glances and tired resolutions. Beautifully acted and brilliantly written, this film is tense and sad movie in equal measures. Dialogue clings to characters’ mouths, and unspoken horrors linger in the air in Catherine Linstrum’s debut film. The result is a quietly passionate thriller that resonates long after the final delicate plink of the wind chimes fade.
Emma and Mother flee to an isolated cabin near a defunct nuclear power plant after narrowly escaping a horrific assault by Emma’s brother. They are exhausted, scared, and Mother is hurt. They crash into a tree after a night of driving and break into a deserted vacation home to heal. Each day Emma leaves her mother behind to venture into the world for food, adventure, and eventually companionship with a free-spirited young man. Little by little, the real world creeps into her sanctuary as she realizes you can’t outrun your family or your past. One final showdown proves you can only run for so long.
Nuclear is slyly clever as it plays on traditional definitions of family and the power of nuclear energy. Nuclear fission can be harnessed to create energy to light our homes and warm our beds as well as to destroy families. Symbols and clues to what is really happening are everywhere from tinkling wind chimes calling to the dead, memos to the departed written on a chalkboard, and historical references to the devastation an atomic bomb can have. Just as the lakes surrounding the inactive power reactor are poisoned, so is Emma’s nuclear family, which should protect her from danger. We will never know whether that poisoning was due to a mentally ill child and an absentee father or an abusive mother. The result is the same; however, the family is irrevocably tainted.
The tiny but outstanding cast of Nuclear makes the most of what could have become a gimmicky twist. Emilia Jones(Emma) and Sienna Guillory(Mother) share a typical mother/daughter dynamic that is believably fraught with complexities. Emma became the protector when she fought Brother even if she doesn’t remember all of it right away. That single shifting of power complicates their relationship. Forced to grow up too quickly in the shadow of domestic abuse, Emma views her mother as a victim as well as a caregiver. Mother only sees Emma as the child she has always cared for and tried to protect. The natural growing pains normal young adolescents go through are exacerbated by the danger they are escaping. Jones, in particular, is captivating as she displays a rare combination of fragility, kindness, and strength.
Brother(Oliver Coopersmith) and Boy, played by 1917’s George MacKay, are the wildly opposite male figures. Brother is aggressive and rageful. The clink of his teeth as he bears down on a beer bottle tells you more than even the hissed words of a violent man can. He seethes with untold pain and regret. Coopersmith does an incredible job making Brother a complex character who is more than just an abuser. He is also a lonely, confused boy seeking love in all the wrong ways.
On the other hand, Mackay’s Boy is youthful charm and vitality. He leads a transient life of adventure, and his carefree lifestyle appeals to Emma, who has seen very little peace in her young life. Boy cares for Emma and treats her like he should. He may not always make the right choices, but his heart is in the right place. When he finds her cold and wet in the final act, he cleans her up tenderly without any sexual nuance. He effectively becomes the brother she should have had at that moment. The two men play perfectly off one another despite never being in a scene together.
If silence is a part of Heaven here on Earth, Emma finally finds it at the base of the decommissioned power plant. Substitute silence for tranquility, and it makes even more sense. Emma has lived with the shadow of her brother’s violence her whole life. He broke her skull when she was eight, and, likely, it was not the first time he hurt her. Her hopes for an ideal family never had a chance. Her mother struggled with her own abuse issues, and her father was not trusted for some reason. When she fled the attack, she ran away from rather than to her father. Later she contacts him but even then does not attempt to go to him for help. It begs the question, how long things had been bad? The oddly hopeful ending leaves room that everyone might finally find contentment.
Are Mother And Brother Ghosts?
In both cases, they aren’t just figments of Emma’s mind, but actual ghosts with unfinished business. The serene Japanese Lady that Mother sees throughout and acts as a wrap-around narrator of sorts explains what has happened. Emma was the only survivor of a violent assault. Her brother attacked her mother, killing her, and went after Emma. She fought back by stabbing him, and he also died in the woods. She was the only one to escape, and she fled in the family car. When Emma calls her Father, he tells her Mother is in the morgue, and they found one body in the woods. It is an intentionally deceptive conversation meant to confuse the viewer. Both Brother and Mother are dead and have been the entire film.
She did not just imagine her mother with her. Mother died so suddenly, and violently she was not ready to leave her vulnerable daughter alone. She was afraid for her daughter’s future, unaware of Brother’s fate, and grief-stricken. Likely she also felt responsibility for Brother’s apparent mental instability. This is evident when she confesses to Emma about the things she said to Brother when he was a baby. She is convinced she made him the monster he became. Whether there is any validity to that, we will never know, but her guilt and fear hold her to Emma. She can only move on once the Japanese Lady explains what has happened to her, and she accepts that she no longer has any control. One final goodbye as the two women touch hands in the woods is all that is left between them.
Brother also can not move on to whatever is next for him because he needs to confront Emma one final time. He is an angry boy, but he comes to her initially seeking companionship. Emma isn’t ready to confront what she had to do to survive and doesn’t realize he is a ghost just like her mother. Brother probably also doesn’t know he is dead and hunts down Emma partly to exact revenge and seek family.
He is unstable, lonely, and lashing out. Emma tosses him into a power plant tank, presumably to his death. He is already dead, though, and she is a good person. She dives in to save him because she also wants forgiveness. That act of love allows her to remember what happened and Brother to move on. In the end, what every good parent hopes for their children happens. Emma can forgive and move on. She is the kinder, gentler, better version of her mother every good parent wants. Brother is released from his anger and pain by her selfless act.
Nuclear is an atmospheric ghost story that takes a page from Netflix’s The Haunting Of Bly Manor. It is heavy on emotional weight without being overtly scary. For lovers of Gothic Horror, Nuclear is a lovely, quiet rumination on love, loss, and acceptance. With thoughtful cinematography and a moving soundtrack, this film is a rare gift. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime now.
As the TV/Streaming Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.