The worst kind of exploitation film is the kind that doesn’t know it’s an exploitation film, but instead pretends to say something profound about the human condition. Johan Renck’s directorial debut, Downloading Nancy (written by Pamela Cuming and Lee Ross), stars Maria Bello as a deeply unhappy woman who escapes her loveless marriage and her memories of child abuse by cutting and burning herself, and by having creepy encounters with men she meets on the Internet. Jason Patric plays one of those men, a sadist who agrees to torture and kill Bello over a long weekend. Downloading Nancy jumps between Bello and Patric’s “date”’; a confrontation between Patric and Bello’s emotionally numb, golf-crazy husband Rufus Sewell; and scenes from Bello’s therapy sessions with worried-but-ineffective psychologist Amy Brenneman. In short, this is a movie about bruised people bruising each other, and if Downloading Nancy had more of an openly pulpy sensibility, then the repugnant premise might’ve had some lasting impact. Instead, Renck, Cuming, and Ross—along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle—have made a chilly, bleak film about characters so programmatic that their plight is easy to shrug off.
Downloading Nancy’s tangled structure is effective at times. When Sewell is pressing Patric for information about his wife—and tormenting the tormenter a little in the process—the audience doesn’t yet know Bello’s fate, which makes the scenes uncommonly tense. And when Bello is trying to get Patric to open up about his own tragic past—operating under the theory that she’ll be taking his secrets to the grave—her all-bets-are-off attitude gives the movie a few much-needed jolts of energy. But the characters’ backstories are, ultimately, dead ends. (Even Patric admits as much, saying it doesn’t matter who hurt him as a boy.) Though the actors are all game, Renck’s muted tone and pointlessly disjointed montages, coupled with the characters’ persistent blankness, renders Downloading Nancy as spare and soulless as the sparsely furnished McMansions and business hotels where much of the story takes place.