Like Walking on Fake Ground
Maria Bello, Jason Patrick, Rufus Sewell, Amy Brenneman
US theatrical: 5 Jun 2009 (Limited release)
There are a lot of mes.
—Louis (Jason Patric)
Louis (Jason Patric) has a whippet named Walnut. Sweet-tempered and quietly obedient, the dog rides along with Louis when he goes to pick up Nancy (Maria Bello) at the train station, trots ahead to greet her, tilting his little head back to accept her brief affection. As the threesome makes their way back to Louis’ car, the dog huddles into his arms as Nancy observes, “In Thailand, they have two kinds of dog food: one kind if you just want to feed your dog and another kind if you want to eat your dog.” Louis looks down at his pet, more or less protectively: “You hear that, Walnut? She wants to eat you.”
It’s a lame joke and not even close to what Nancy’s just said, but it’s a telling start for Downloading Nancy, a movie where no one listens much to what Nancy has to say. That’s not to say she has so many chances to speak. Throughout Johan Renck’s first feature, Nancy suggests she wants to communicate. And repeatedly, she’s shushed by her husband of 15 years, Albert (Rufus Sewell), and her therapist, Carol (Amy Brenneman), who appear in flashbacks, increasingly angry, frustrated, and graceless in the face of Nancy’s apparently inexplicable and profound depression.
That doesn’t mean the flashbacks don’t make an effort to illustrate some steps in that depression. It’s clear from the movie’s start—via a voice-overed therapy session that Nancy is suicidal: “Death is like sucking pure oxygen,” she imagines for Carol, whereas life “is like being trapped inside the wrong house, looking for a way out.” Though Carol points out that breathing is not typically associated with breathing, Nancy conjures a more standard image: “I’ll be outside my body, I’ll be floating and free.” While she alludes in passing to childhood abuses and Albert’s neglect, her despair—manifested most stereotypically and sensationally in her cutting, which she does in the therapist’s bathroom—Nancy not only has trouble articulating her pain but also but also hearing anyone else, like, say, her therapist or her husband.
She does fool herself into thinking that Louis, whom she has met on line, listens, and more to the point, that he has agreed to “free her” from her life of pain. Her need for such liberation is rendered in a series of flashbacks that appear to chronicle her ongoing sense of abuse. One scene shows Albert’s careless cruelty at a business dinner, another his realization, at home, that she’s missing. Both of these scenes seem invested in his experience rather than hers: the camera stays with him as she stalks from the dining room, begging to leave a patently yucky ritual, with a cheap DJ who plays Michael Bolton’s rendition of “When a Man Loves a Woman” and drunkenly effusive praise for her husband’s involvement in a lousy golf-video game designed for sale in hotel bars. Albert wants to stick around (though his ostensible pleasure in the event looks decidedly creepy), and takes her rejection personally, the camera close on his face as he asks, impatiently, “Can’t you just drop it? Snap out of it?”
No she can’t. And the film suggests she has no reason to, when Albert appears again, this time in his present—seeing she’s left a note explaining her absence as a visit with “friends in Baltimore.” Puttering in his bathroom, he imagines she’s seated at her computer, recalling (or imagining) his surprise on catching her masturbating, painfully and clumsily, in reaction to something online. We come to find out that she’s been seeking a partner who will agree to kill her (the film’s story, written by Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross, is inspired by a true one), after a few days and nights of sex fantasies acted out; that Albert chooses to ignore her desperation is not so surprising as it is tedious. Now we have to watch him think through what he’s missed, even as we cut back to her evolving and ever more strained relationship with Louis.
While this sequence showcases Bello’s good work (and it is very good), it also underscores the movie’s completely tedious assumptions about Nancy’s pathology. Primarily, it sets Nancy’s misery alongside Louis’ antagonism. Though he insists he doesn’t want to share any personal information—in that anonymous-sex-fantasy way that movies so love to rehearse—he does let slip that he was married and has young children and that he resents the ex rather severely. Apparently, his increasing affection for his online date is confusing, and so he performs his irritation, mostly by smashing furniture and occasionally by smashing her.
That Nancy laughs and appears to welcome her abuse doesn’t make it any less abusive. (To be fair, the movie appears to know this.) Neither does Louis’ decision to confront Albert, blaming him for other abuses, as he’s heard Nancy describe in their emails. It’s this confrontation that makes the movie tip off whatever rails it might have been on. Partly this narrative and thematic collapse has to do with their abuses of each other—men with golf clubs and email savvy twirling their superiorities in variously offensive ways. And partly it has to do with Walnut. For it is, after all, this adorable and compliant prop who becomes the vehicle for both men’s semi-but-not-really redemptions. It’s silly and gratuitous, even if it does stem from a real life incident. And it may be the always disturbing and usually nonsensical Downloading Nancy‘s most disturbing bit of nonsense.