Tough women, tortured women, damaged women: Maria Bello conveys so much in these roles that it’s oddly pleasurable to watch her work in the hauntingly painful, strangely erotic “Downloading Nancy.”
I say oddly because, at heart, this film by Johan Renck is about a woman in emotional agony, desperately seeking release. Bello plays her as someone who is white-knuckling her way through life, hiding her shame and distrusting anything positive that might come her way. It’s a performance both naked and nuanced, as a character who is like a live wire, shocking the men in her life into desperate action or catatonic inertia.
Nancy is a lifelong victim: of damaging sexual abuse as a child, then of a chilly, withholding husband as an adult. Fed up with her husband Albert (Rufus Sewell) and his preoccupation with the golf technology that has made him wealthy, Nancy escapes him through the Internet.
There she meets Louis (Jason Patric), who becomes her secret pen pal and eventually agrees to host her if she visits him in Baltimore. But Nancy, who copes with her problems by cutting herself, isn’t looking for a lover. She wants Louis to make love to her – and then kill her.
Renck tells his story in jigsaw fashion, hop-scotching through time between Louis and Nancy’s rendezvous (and Albert’s befuddled response to her disappearance) and earlier times that drove Nancy to this act. Then he jumps forward, as Louis visits Albert, pretending to be a computer repairman who has an appointment to check Nancy’s computer (though he’s ostensibly there to wipe her hard drive and remove evidence of their relationship).
It’s all played quietly, almost cryptically, though it quickly becomes clear what is afoot. Spooky, moody electronic music (by Krister Linder) and snowy landscapes (usually filmed after dark) make this an eerie, sometimes vague film in which the hidden emotions break through like sudden geysers of flame, searing all involved.
Most of those moments belong to Bello, playing a woman whose whole life is a performance, an attempt to act normal even as she feels herself disappearing or being shattered into pieces. Bello’s face is a mask of hope, beneath which lurks, by turn, overwhelming feelings of anger, pain, shame, resentment and regret. Life is a constant source of pain to which she’s managed to numb herself. She can only feel it when she takes a razor blade to her own skin.
Patric is unsettlingly smooth, the grim reaper as lover – yet he also reveals just what an illusion his show of confidence is when confronted with a truly troubled spirit like Nancy. Sewell, by contrast, is almost smirkily remote, viewing his wife as a necessary nuisance, someone from whom he’d just as soon keep his distance.
“Downloading Nancy” is achingly sad, a story of a woman trying to elude the pain of her life. Bravo to Maria Bello, who makes you want to help this character – and makes it just as clear that your assistance is unwelcome.