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Disconnected: Johan Renck’s “Downloading Nancy”

Disconnected: Johan Renck's "Downloading Nancy"

The opening of “Downloading Nancy,” which features on the soundtrack Nancy (Maria Bello) detailing to therapist Carol (Amy Brenneman) the liberation she expects to feel upon dying, compounded by cryptic exchanges with stranger Louis (Jason Patric) in a bus terminal, makes clear fairly quickly where Johan Renck’s misleadingly titled film is heading. Giving itself away so early on, “Downloading Nancy”–which shifts between past and present–faces a difficult task: to provide a description of the events leading up to Nancy’s willful demise observant enough to illuminate her extreme decision. Doing so would take a far steadier hand than the neophyte feature filmmaker’s, and the movie’s failure to meaningfully portray a woman’s online hiring of a man to facilitate her death isn’t mitigated by a concluding admission of the story’s real-life origins. Rather than lend legitimacy to the telling, the climactic announcement renders “Downloading Nancy” the more exploitative for its tiresome provocation.

Scenes from Nancy’s past include flashbacks delineating her relationship with Albert (Rufus Sewell), par for the course of which is an episode at a company party where he symbolically strands her on the dance floor while “When a Man Loves a Woman” plays on the speakers (signaling further the tackiness of their lives is the fact that Michael Bolton’s cover rather than the original is playing). Interspersed between such scenes illustrating the husband and wife’s rift are Nancy’s therapy sessions, a lazy narrative construction whereby screenwriters Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross can tell rather than show the effects of molestation Nancy suffered as a child. Not for a second does it seem plausible that the protagonist as constructed would willingly submit herself to therapy since she regularly dismisses Carol’s attempts as psychobabble and provokes the good doctor enough to get thrown out.

Meanwhile, Nancy’s present finds her indulging masochistic tendencies — involving mousetrap-laden foreplay, lit cigarettes and sharp objects — with cyber-buddy Louis, as clueless Albert putters around at home unaware, given to believe Nancy is visiting “friends” in Baltimore. Where exactly the married couple resides in relation is an unanswered question, although Renck provides a general description with a suburban setting so depressingly overdone — awash in loud floral patterns, plastic-covered sofas, and pink hand towels — that it more accurately captures the aesthetic sensibilities of elderly Floridians. Little natural light penetrates the couple’s home, and the outside world is almost never represented. Like a teenager in his parents’ house, Albert seems to spend most of his time hiding out with friends in his tricked-out basement, complete with bar and golf-putting area.

Since the couple is never situated in a specific locale or established in exterior shots, a sense of displacement pervades, an insular and untethered atmosphere which could’ve been further harnessed by the director as part of a thematic exploration of the ways in which the internet structures and defines the parameters of our lives, its leveling abilities in regards to location, and attendant possibilities of both connection and alienation. Strangely — in light of the fact that the plugged-in premise that makes Nancy’s death wish fulfillment possible — Renck, like the screenwriters, seems to have little interest in exploring the subject, resulting in a curiously unlayered affair.
Even cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle’s contribution can’t redeem the film’s failings, tasked as he is to present in cliched fashion fluorescent-lit spaces designed to conjure a sickly glow. Matching the setting, the beauty of Bello and Sewell is suitably diminished, the actors rendered sallow-skinned, limp-haired, heavy-lidded. Bello, in particular, uses her physicality to great effect; she’s constantly hunching, curling in on herself, hands self-consciously fluttering around her face, eyes downcast and hidden by strands of hair. Outfitted often in a light blue cardigan, she unconsciously tugs on the sleeves, covering up the scars and fresh marks on her arms from cutting herself; she caresses hardware supplies at the store as if they’re crushed velvet.

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD] More’s the pity the director doesn’t share her commitment. Renck’s descriptions are broad strokes gesturing towards a checklist of generic tropes (sexual abuse, loveless marriage, suburban ennui) lacking the profundity necessary to save the project from going down simply as cinematic masturbation and the specificity to make riveting the climactic event which ends with Nancy’s death. Louis later says of the consensual killing, “I released her.” Since his murder signals that the end of the movie is near, it’s hard not to feel as if he’s done us a favor, too.

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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