The premise of Downloading Nancy, in which a depressed housewife attempts to solicit murderers in online chat rooms to help her pull off a psycho-assisted suicide, seems ripe for execution in the vein of Neil LaBute’s style of behind-closed-doors perversion, but director Johan Renck has something else in mind, delivering what’s essentially an emotionally sterile and self-serious terminal disease drama without a moment of levity to be found from first frame to last. A creepy curtain-raiser that follows Nancy (a sallow, up-for-three-days-looking Maria Bello) on a final tour of pleasures to a gaming arcade of the kind beloved in her youth, is a good indication of the weightiness in store; it’s also Renck’s most effective stab at creating genuine sympathy for an utterly broken main character, coming as it does when Nancy’s palpable sadness is already resonating, but her other, more unpalatable characteristics as a maniacally self-involved, juvenile pain fetishist and attention junkie have yet to be teased out.
Cinematographer Christopher Doyle, following in Renck’s serious-as-cancer lead, keeps things dour with a bug-zapper aesthetic of massively over-lit whites and swampy blue-greens, the former being aggressively employed in the home Nancy shares with suburban zombie husband Albert (Rufus Sewell), who conspicuously chugs diet Pepsi and tends to the minutia of his epitome-of-blandness airport-hotel miniature golf business, while remaining oblivious to his wife’s furious masturbating to her own imagined demise in the computer room. Though her visibly cut-up legs and seemingly involuntary talk therapy sessions with an exasperated psychiatrist (Amy Brenneman) are sufficient evidence of Nancy’s real desire for self-harm outside the realm of fantasy, the answer to the key question of what would compel her to go to such lengths as recruiting suitor-murderers is simply stipulated as being within the realm of fetishism; regardless, her decision leads to the emergence from the cyber ether of Louis (Jason Patric), a chat-room angel of death promising to end her pain.
Patric’s Louis is a chilling construction, a man often visibly confused over whether to drop his phony persona of death-dealing lothario and instead attempt to forge a connection with a woman who stirs authentic feelings within him, but who wants no part of him outside their established roles. With Bello committed to a serviceable, if constrictive, interpretation of the severely depressed Nancy as a woman barely reachable through a fog of pain and mental exhaustion, all dramatic tension rests on the potential for humanity in Louis. A second-act twist that contrives to bring him into contact with Albert in order to flesh out both of their characters unfortunately feels wildly inorganic and borrowed from the thriller genre, though Patric recovers in some late scenes, as he becomes an increasingly anxious sidekick to a determined-for-death Nancy; watch as he joins her in contemplating belly-up fish in a pet store aquarium, or looks on as she, grinning, runs her fingers over sharp garden tools, or helps her select a dress in which to die. A gruesome collision of chat-room fetish play and three-dimensional sexual psychosis that’s immensely depressing, though rarely affecting, Downloading Nancy’s probably not an ideal date movie.