Downloading Nancy is not, just so you know, a movie about the Internet. The online world itself plays little part in the story, save for it being the tool that connects Nancy (Maria Bello) to an intimate stranger named Louis (Jason Patrick), behind the back of her distanced husband Albert (Rufus Sewell). If anything, writers Lee Ross and Pamela Cuming, as well as director Johan Renck—all first-timers—use the term more for its allegorical quality. Nancy's marriage is so devoid of happiness that she's gotten used to cutting, masturbating and chatting online to find moments of short bliss. From that last one she meets Louis, a man she asks to kill her.
It's not as depressing as it sounds, but it is discomforting. Maybe more to some than others, which limits its audience (and apparently the critical appreciation too, as some reviews coming out of its Sundance premiere earlier this year seem to have lambasted the film for its extreme subject matter more than its execution).
To its credit, it doesn't fantasize—or fetishize—Nancy's masochism. There are the unavoidable tinges of eroticism, yes, but it knows enough to avoid sexualizing, as movies often treat dangerous kinks. Not that there's anything overtly wrong with that, but when your character is a woman who enjoys pain as the result of an emotional abuse, it's not so much the joy of physical exploration anymore as it is a coping mechanism, thus robbing it of its, er, sexiness. One hard scene to watch has a blindfolded Nancy walking barefoot across a hotel room, while Louis repeatedly puts mousetraps in front of her toes. It establishes them as two individuals who get off on this, but it doesn't hide the look of pain in Nancy's face with each loud snap.
The actors do the heavy lifting. Maria Bello as Nancy, naturally, bears no further praise. It's a difficult performance that requires extraordinary fearlessness; not just in enacting the explicitly degrading sex scenes, but also the dark place her character burrows into. Bello's portrayal of an unbalanced suicidal woman never crosses the line into showy scene-grabbing preciousness. She plays Nancy as an average housewife, whose desperation has gone so deep that it's permanently oozing out of her. The moments where she does "act out," so to speak, ring true as genuine outbursts.
But it's not all about Nancy. Rufus Sewell as the spiteful husband successfully sells the vision of a terrifying marriage. Not from physical or verbal abuse; but from the way he avoids eye contact or his hateful dismissal of her jokes and advances. You wonder how the hell they got married in the first place, but seeing his genuine worry when Nancy disappears, there's a realization that this is an alarming trend in married couples—when love can't translate to affection (this film is supposedly based on a true story, though that rarely matters much). Jason Patrick's Louis, on the other hand, is terrifying on a different level. He's transparently psychotic and doesn't hesitate to inflict physical abuse on Nancy, but he also demonstrates care for her and gives her the fulfillment she never had.
The most disappointing aspect of the film, surprisingly, is the great Christopher Doyle's cinematography. Downloading Nancy is textbook drab, depressing indie film: tight shots, colorless, and a whole lot of blue. Missing are the lush colors prevalent in Doyle's recent works, or the energetic style of his guerrilla past. His lensing here is lifeless, maybe to better suit the mood of the film, but certainly adds nothing to it. It's like they decided that since the characters are miserable, then the movie must look as miserable as possible to convey a point. Nancy's marriage is cold, her life anemic? Then let's have the landscape icy and sulky; drain all the colors out of everything. It's not a wrong decision to make, but it's ghastly one-note. Unfortunately, so is the film.
Renck plays with a non-linear narrative, dividing the film between Nancy's emotionally charged affair with Louis, Nancy's barren past with Albert, and Louis' chilling confrontation of Albert. Given the possibility of murder, the film builds a sense of mystery and suspense around these three conflicts, which cooks up a narrative drive that is otherwise missing from the vignettes of pain that dominate the film.
For all its stark approach to the subject, Downloading Nancy doesn't seem to have much to say about it. Often, the film shocks more than it informs. Is there a point to all this, or is it using an extreme situation just to play bleak? It's a fascinating—no doubt divisive—film, but it's hard to deem it noteworthy. Though the characters do have some life in them, the story unfolds in a flat, stubbornly dreary manner that eventually reveals itself to be more tiring than challenging.
"Downloading Nancy" opens July 3, 2009 and is rated . Drama, Thriller. Directed by Johan Renck. Written by Pamela Cuming & Lee Ross. Starring Maria Bello, Jason Patrick, Rufus Sewell, Amy Brenneman.