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Endurance Test Theater presents: ‘Downloading Nancy’

February 25, 2010

Downloading Nancy, 2008

Director: Johan Renck

Screenplay by: Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross

Starring: Maria Bello, Jason Patric, Rufus Sewell, Amy Brenneman, David Brown and Michael Nyqvist

Two universal truths about movies: one, if a film’s title consists of ‘[Verb]ing [Character’s Name],’ there’s a 75% chance it won’t be good. You could attempt to prove me wrong by mentioning Raising Arizona and Being John Malkovich, but I could counterstrike with the hat trick of Raising Helen, Saving Silverman and Guarding Tess. I could also mention Deconstructing Harry, Boxing Helena, Raising Cain and Drowning Mona, plus a bunch of other movies you’re not likely to remember, probably because they weren’t very good. No one knows why, but the gerund-name combination just seems to be a signpost leading towards lazy, derivative, generally poor filmmaking.

The second truth is that suburban life, even in lighthearted comedies, will always be portrayed as unbearable. Mind-numbingly dull, suffocating and populated by small-minded people who always have some sort of terrible secret to hide, suburbia as Hell on Earth has been the vivid setting of such recent releases as Little Children and Revolutionary Road, and even a few movies that don’t star Kate Winslet.  It’s also a favorite cliche for independent films, mainly because a lot of independent filmmakers grew up in cities and really do view the suburbs as a sort of purgatory for people who can’t handle dirty water dogs and dodging vomit to get down the stairs fast enough to catch a crowded, overheated subway, which will undoubtedly smell like unwashed homeless person. I don’t know where Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, the writers of Downloading Nancy grew up, but I’m guessing neither of them have spent a lot of time at potluck suppers and general stores, since their film makes deep-throating a double barrel shotgun a desirable alternative to the white picket fence lifestyle.

Downloading Nancy stars Maria Bello, and let me be fair by pointing out in advance that she’s really good in it. She looks believably despondent and as realistically shitty as a glamorous blond movie star can possibly look. She gives a performance worthy of a serious study in the oft-ignored psychological issues of women in their thirties, especially those who’ve suffered from abuse in the past. It’s a shame the movie she expended this performance on is a relentlessly ugly chore that one slogs through rather than watches. Bello plays Nancy Stockwell, a middle class housewife trapped in a miserable, loveless marriage with Albert (Rufus Sewell, who must have prepared for shooting every day by sucking on the sourest lemon he could find). In case you’re not certain what a dreadful human being Albert is, he’s obsessed with golf, constantly practicing his game in his basement putting green. He’s also a joyless stiff who won’t indulge Nancy’s attempts at playfulness and for no discernible reason refuses to have sex with her. We know nothing of these characters, other than the fact that Nancy is deeply disturbed and Albert is an uptight prick. No evidence that they were ever happy together, save for a necklace and a tiny, fake looking photograph of the two of them is shown, and thus we don’t learn to care about either of them or their failing marriage.

A victim of child molestation, Nancy deals with the pain of both that and her current unhappy existence by engaging in self-injury, as well as violent sexual encounters with shady individuals she meets online. One of these individuals is Louis (Jason Patric), who she leaves town to meet for the usual degradation, but with an added twist: she wants him to kill her.  Louis, whose online handle is “Deep Pain” (which reminds me of nothing else but the “DEEEEEEP HURRRRRTING” routine from Mystery Science Theater 3000), is more than happy to indulge Nancy sexually, but he’s more talk than show when it comes to this killing thing, as evidenced by the numerous times he asks her if she’s sure she wants him to do it.  Nancy means business though, when, sounding improbably like a character in a cop movie, she snaps “What, are you losing your hard-on already? Let’s do this.”

Louis seems to spend less time actually having sex with Nancy than in coming up with new and innovative ways to cause her pain, such as burning her with cigarettes, tying her to a bed and slicing her skin with broken glass and forcing her to walk across a floor littered with mousetraps while drunk and blindfolded (just when you think you’ve heard about every fetish, here comes a new one).  Despite the initial intention of their meeting as a weekend-long hard BDSM fest, culminating in Nancy’s death, it’s pretty obvious that they have real feelings for each other, or at least, as much feelings as two utterly broken people can muster.  It’s not terribly surprising to discover that Louis sees more of himself in Nancy than just his penis.  We learn just as much about him as we do the other characters in the movie (that is, virtually nothing but the vaguest hints about his past), but what he has in common with Nancy is enough to make him even more reluctant to kill her, while she becomes all the more determined to die.

The film goes back and forth in time, between Nancy and Louis’s blossoming, yet ultimately short-lived relationship, then later when Louis pays a visit to Albert, ostensibly to torture him with his knowledge of what happened to Nancy, only to find the tables turned when Albert unexpectedly shows evidence that he possesses some shred of a heart. Dispersed throughout are scenes from past and present of Nancy’s fruitless sessions with her nice but ineffectual therapist (Amy Brenneman), her godawful relationship with Albert, in which every interaction is grim and stifling and, of course, Nancy hurting herself again and again, with anything she can get her hands on.  Sorry for the lack of a spoiler alert, but Louis does eventually give in to Nancy’s pleadings and kills her, and at the end Albert is left an empty, hollow shell of a man, which isn’t much of a change from how he is at the beginning, though presumably he doesn’t enjoy golf as much.

The trailer for Downloading Nancy seems to bizarrely suggest that it’s a quirky love story with a twist.  It’s not.  I don’t know what kind of movie it is, other than unpleasant.  It’s powered on nothing but hopelessness and despair, so much so that it was difficult to find anything funny to say about it. However, my dislike for it doesn’t stem from the fact that it’s profoundly depressing.  I can take sad movies; in fact, I tend to prefer them over the “Hey, it’s all gonna work out, let’s go try on some hats!” type of movie.  What bothers me is that it’s utterly pointless.  Nancy suffers in life, and she suffers in death, to what end? We can only assume that Albert learned a valuable lesson, that being “Jesus Christ, don’t ignore it when your wife keeps slashing the shit out of her arms,” but since we never get to know Albert his “comeuppance” isn’t satisfying.  We don’t feel relief for Nancy when she finally gets her wish, it’s simply an empty, violent end to a sad life.

It’s irritating when filmmakers don’t give their audience enough credit for understanding the message a movie is putting across, and go too heavy on the symbolism.  In Downloading Nancy, symbolism comes by way of the lighting and set design.  Everything is bathed in a gray-blue light, so that everyone resembles freshly deceased corpses–to show you that they’re dead on the inside too, do you understand? The sets look shabby and “suburban life” is represented by plastic covered furniture and Albert’s chintzy paneled basement–because it’s fake and plastic, like life in the suburbs, don’t you get it? It’s as if director Johan Renck is swatting you repeatedly in the face with a placard reading THIS IS AN IMPORTANT FILM.

The few positive reviews of Downloading Nancy praised its realistic portrayal of mental illness. That much is true, but the realism can be attributed not to the script, which has such ridiculous lines as “Let me be your pain,” but to Maria Bello’s performance. She gets every nuance of severe, crippling depression right: the body language, the occasional moments of lucidity in which even she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing, the irritating demands for attention, the maddening refusal to allow herself to be helped. She’s not a lovable, misunderstood “free spirit,” as so many emotionally disturbed people are portrayed as in Hollywood, she’s realistically hard to sympathize with, let alone like, and yet there are times when you just wish someone would give her a damn hug. If this was a better movie, she might have taken away a handful of awards from it.

Instead, her character seems to be a tool used to make a movie about a dysfunctional from the get-go couple’s kinky sex games seem artsy and “edgy,” and it becomes exploitative. Bello looks so believably miserable, so convincingly tormented and unhinged that it takes on the feel of a snuff film after a very short time. Whenever she lets out a humorless burst of laughter as she’s slapped or thrown about by Louis or Albert like a rag doll, it makes your skin crawl. You wish you’d learn Nancy’s fate from the beginning, because then you wouldn’t have to contend with the cheap, horror film suspense, culminating in such grotesque scenes as Nancy wandering dazed around a hardware store, helping Louis choose the objects that will end her life and hide her body. “Aren’t you going to need this?” she asks him brightly as she holds up a shovel.  It makes you shudder, but for likely different reasons than was intended.

A title card at the end reads ‘Based on True Events,’ which is a neat little way for the filmmakers to avoid criticism.  Some defenders of Downloading Nancy say that its detractors simply can’t take the fact that there are real people like the characters in the film.  Oh, I can take that fact.  I believe that people like Nancy Stockwell exist.  I know people like Nancy Stockwell.  They deserve a better movie than Downloading Nancy.  It’s torture porn with psychobabble.

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