Maria Bello Shines in a Dark Tale
"Downloading Nancy" (opened July 3 at Reading Gaslamp Stadium Theaters) was an official selection at last year's Sundance Film Festival. The film marks the feature directing debut of John Renck, a Swedish director of commercials and music videos.
"Downloading Nancy" feels like an acting showcase for Maria Bello. But she wasn't the first actress attached to the film. Holly Hunter was originally cast in the role of Nancy, a housewife who has reached the end of her rope. But a pregnancy and scheduling conflicts forced Hunter out and Bello stepped in and delivers a knockout performance.
Nancy (Maria Bello) has been in an unhappy marriage fro 15 years with Albert (Rufus Sewell). He seems oblivious to her emotional deterioration and the role he has played in it. One day he arrives home from work to find a note from his wife saying that she has gone to visit friends. After a few days he realizes that his wife is missing and may not be coming back.
Through a fragmented narrative that moves back and forth in time, we discover that Nancy has been seeing a psychiatrist (Amy Brenneman in a thankless role) for, among other things, an addiction to self-mutilation. We also see her in a joyless marriage and unable to elicit a warm or intimate response from her husband. What we also slowly discover is that Nancy has decided to end her life. She sees that as the only liberation from a life of pain. But rather than simply commit suicide, she has turned to the Internet to find an accomplice. In Louis (Jason Patric) she finds another emotionally damaged person and someone willing to kill her. But along the way, Nancy and Louis develop an emotional attachment. But will this late blooming intimacy be enough to sway Nancy from her decision to end it all?
"Downloading Nancy" serves up a bleak downward spiral. With the exception of a single kiss, the film proves to be unrelenting in its grim portrait of a woman who has given up on life. Bello is brilliant as Nancy. She conveys an utter desperation and lack of hope but also a stubbornness of having reached her final conviction. She breaks our heart by revealing someone who can no longer be reached. Bello's Nancy provokes contrasting responses from Patric's Louis and Sewell's Albert. Patric initially comes across as brutal and too easily convinced to play Nancy's rough games. But slowly he reveals an affection for her and a desperation to understand what has brought her to such an emotional abyss. He even seeks out and confronts Albert to try and find out how someone could live with this woman for 15 years and nor see her pain. Sewell for his part creates an emotionally cruel and callous individual. But even he reveals a hint of humanity in his utter bafflement over his wife's disappearance.
Although lensed by the talented Christopher Doyle, "Downloading Nancy" reveals little visual flair. The whole film is cast in chilly shades of blue that prove to be as unrelentingly monochromatic as the film's emotional tone. Director Renck seems to just document Nancy's descent without much insight or commentary. He conveys a lot of details about how low she feels and how resolute she feels about her decision to end her life. But that's not the same thing as providing insights into what makes her tick or how her social environment may have contributed to her condition. For comparison, check out either the 1970 "Diary of a Mad Housewife" that placed Carrie Snodgress' deteriorating housewife amidst a very particular milieu or "The Piano Teacher" in which Isabelle Huppert's self mutilation is part of a fascinating character rather than being her defining trait.
"Downloading Nancy" (unrated) is a deliberate downer lifted by a trio of compelling performances. It strives to make you uncomfortable and succeeds but some may find that a dubious kind of success. So in the end it's not a film you can enjoy but there are definitely elements to appreciate.
Companion viewing: "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "The Dying Gaul," "The Piano Teacher"