Maria Bello has one of those familiar faces. If you saw her at an airport, you might stop her and say, “I know you from some television show or some movie, but I can’t quite place where.” I’ve seen her in roles here and there – looking at her filmography, I’ve seen her in Payback, Thank You for Smoking and a few other roles, but admittedly none of them were particularly notable. When it comes to Downloading Nancy, there’s no mistaking the fact if she didn’t have a signature film, she does now. Despite a great all around cast, this is her film.
Bello is undoubtedly among the most attractive leading women in film today. And while I’m not quite sure exactly what it was that attracted her to this script, one would assume that she must have felt the need to make a statement. This is one of the most visceral, difficult-to-watch-yet-hard-to-turn-away-from while at the same time thought provoking and challenging films I’ve ever seen. Ever. Gone from Bello is the beautiful smile and naturally attractive features and replacing them are all the physical signs of a person who has no regard for her appearance and appears to be unashamed in her quest to do harm to her body.
To say that Downloading Nancy follows the life of a woman during “a difficult period in her life” would be a gross understatement. The title character has been married to her husband Albert (Rufus Sewell) for fifteen years. The director craftily provides glimpses into the past revealing how the marriage reached this point and we witness some of the worst evidence of neglect. I’ve always listened to abused women on television declare that “he hits me because he cares about me”. While I’m no closer to believing the validity of that statement and that mindset now than I was an hour and a half ago, I must admit that I understand a bit more the spirit of a person making that statement. Albert barely acknowledges that his wife is even in the same room with him. In on scene, he gets up from the dinner table and walks all the way around the table to get the salt and pepper shakers – a trip that could have easily been saved by simply asking his wife to secure them. Rufus Sewell usually fits comfortably in the role of the villain in films and that baggage works to his favor here. It’s painful to watch the neglect that he shows his wife.
There’s no other way to say it – Nancy likes to hurt herself. She carries a box of razor blades around. She takes advantage of almost any opportunity when she’s alone to inflict pain upon herself. This extends beyond self-infliction and we learn that she connects with others online, sharing what she can’t share with her husband. I have a pretty strong stomach for on screen violence or graphic content and I have to admit that the mere suggestion of what Nancy is doing – whether I can see where her hands are going or not – made me immensely uncomfortable. This film is to our era what Star 80 was to it’s day.
During the film we learn that although a failed marriage contributes heavily to her current state, Nancy has had a history of abuse (including rape by a family member and a bad relationship with her mother). Although Nancy participates in therapeutic sessions, we can see how extreme her case is through the eyes of her psychiatrist. Despite what probably amounts to thousands of dollars in training and schooling and experience, even the doctor seems disturbed by Nancy as she recounts the events of her life.
Director Johan Renck did an incredible job thematically creating a world that is devoid of life. There aren’t any reds, greens or deep blues to be found here. The film has a light blue tint and faces are lit to reveal every imperfection. I’m sure the budget for make-up was next to nil. There are no beautiful people here. This is a gritty, lonely, unforgiving world. And although Maria Bello does a phenomenal job here showing her versatility and ability to make the viewer believe that she is completely disconnected from the world and incapable of experiencing any joy, it’s difficult to recommend this film. No, it’s not that this film is bad. Quite the contrary. This is a film that will make even the most dubious viewers sit up and attest to the effects of neglect and abuse. It’s just that this film is such a downer that only viewers who seek the most challenging experience that film can offer will find the value in this joyless exercise. I know a few friends who suffer from depression and a few who only suggest through their behavior that they may be feeling depressed. For either group, I’m going on a mission to secure and hide every copy of Downloading Nancy within a 100-yard radius.
Downloading Nancy is not for weak-hearted viewers. There are strong themes at play here. What’s most difficult about viewing this film is discovering that there are no heroes to be found. I watched – all the while looking for someone… any character whose moral values I could hitch my wagon to and sympathize with. The director doesn’t give us this luxury. This is a powerful experience that will (sadly) get lost amidst lesser films – even in it’s disc release. (Downloading Nancy was released in theaters this past May here in the states.) If there is one uplifting thing I can say in this film’s favor is that it’s made me more appreciative of the relationships that I have. As the credits roll, you may be compelled to drop the remote, find your significant other… or anybody that you feel may be lacking a little love and hug them into submission. If there’s anything that Downloading Nancy teaches us, it’s that the awkwardness involved with showing true love and expressing feelings of affection far outweigh that consequences of not doing so.