Maria Bello's world-weary seriousness and plainly-bared sexuality have been put to excellent use in movies like The Cooler and A History of Violence, exploring relationships fraught with wounded desperation and suspicion. Given the existence of these films, Downloading Nancy counts as an abuse of trust. This is not to say that this dark, sexually-explicit picture achieves anywhere near its intended level of provocation. Instead, it leads its actors down a dank alleyway, slowly, with maximum pretension and minimal payoff.
Bello bares her soul, or someone's fumbling interpretation of same, as Nancy, a woman who suffered abuse as a child and is now stuck in a non-abusive but stifling marriage with Albert (Rufus Sewell); she can only feel through pain. Somehow this is meant to relate to the internet, where Nancy, it's implied, spends most of her time and forms her only real relationships, though this all remains largely undramatized. (And not to get too literal, but no one in this movie downloads a damn thing apart from some email). Article continues below
When Nancy abruptly leaves home to meet up with an online acquaintance (Jason Patric), Albert putters around their home, worrying and flashing back to their sinking relationship. This gradually reveals not the everyday misery of broken people, but the awful implausibility of this movie's version of a 15-year marriage in which no one appears to have been remotely happy at any point throughout it. The movie makes it difficult to picture how Nancy and Albert met and survived a first date, much less the 15 years Nancy spends working up the nerve to meet an internet buddy (Jason Patric) to act out a kinky possible death wish.
Bello gives herself over to the role, but Nancy as written is impossibly melodramatic, a showy construct that never makes it off the screenwriter's page. She's weighed down by a peculiar mishmash of writing styles that made me long for instant-message shorthand. Sometimes the dialogue sounds like poorly translated subtitles read aloud; in other scenes, it sounds like a stilted play, full of artificially vague portent (sample exchange: "Where are you?" / "I'm here." / "Good. Then we have somewhere to go."). When Bello and Patric first meet, there's a glimmer of hope that their chat-room relationship will translate into prickly in-person awkwardness, but the film is too fixated on alienation to bother with that sort of nuance.
Director Johan Renck does his best work in silence: the film's icy blue-grey tones perfectly depict dead-end bus stations, video arcades, and shabby apartments. The problem -- apart from the tin-eared dialogue and underwritten characters -- is that the whole movie becomes one giant dead-end bus station. The overwhelming sense of depression is obviously intentional, but Renck doesn't show much interest in technology (or sex, for that matter) when he can indulge in self-mutilation and therapy clichés. Downloading Nancy creates a deadening sense of ennui not through empathy or lived-in performances, but tedium. Most depressing of all: someone apparently thought this was all quite transgressive. Or interesting.