Nancy is a sparse and lonely film. A dead-end small town, a woman sequestered with her mother, looking for validation through the internet. Nancy (Andrea Riseborough) fights with her mother in the subdued way people do when they need to live with someone they can’t stand. She works as a temp with strangers. She texts. She emails. Ratty sweaters, unkempt hair, nervous eyes, she’s a woman on the cusp of an emotional break that never quite comes. Nancy never strays from these lines.
For its mysteries of a kidnapping cold case and the lives of strangers isolated in a rural home together, Nancy‘s threats are never violent or dangerous. There are no life-or-death odds. The stress of the film comes entirely from this pending break and what consequences it may bring. And yet with a lack of any smoking gun, Nancy proves itself to be a tense and uneasy emotional thriller.
Director: Christina Choe
Release Date: June 8, 2018
In an isolated home surrounded by snowy woods, Nancy meets Betty and Leo (Ann Dowd, Steve Buscemi). These are the parents of a five-year-old girl who was kidnapped 30 years ago. Nancy is the same age this girl would be, and her face is a remarkable match with a mock-up that the parents had released on TV. Nancy has no birth certificate and never met her father. Her mother told her they weren’t biologically related. Now, they wait together as a private investigator runs their DNA to see if she is in fact their lost daughter. This sets the uncomfortable scenario as these strangers become too intimate with each other too quickly, stacking a tower of desires and expectations that begs to collapse.
This is a movie about expressions. Dialogue can be vague to a lazy degree, at times. In one scene Nancy and Betty hear a gunshot, and a hunter runs from the woods, telling them to call 911. Betty calls and says she thinks there’s been a hunting accident. The two run and reach the injured party in the woods. They ask what happened. One responds saying, “We were hunting, and then there was an accident.” And that’s it. There can be an aggravating lack of even basic detail, making certain lines flat and unrealistic.
But when the focus turns from lines to faces, Nancy plays to its strengths. Particularly, Andrea Riseborough has so much control over her expressions, with lips bending and flitting at each moment, wide eyes, and an always timid but defensive posture that she rarely breaks. A shot of her preparing to give a DNA sample to the investigator has her sitting at attention, twisting her lips like she’s even afraid to open her mouth, darting her eyes between the couple who readily let the investigator swab their mouths. You can see how real giving this sample makes her situation, how it represents a line she won’t be able to uncross, and how much that scares her.
And it scared me, as well.
Nancy can be uncomfortable as hell. This confused woman trying to make connections with anyone, inventing stories over the internet, telling small liesnjust to please the people she binds herself to, or maybe to escape herself. And this couple: Betty willing to go to whatever lengths she needs to have her daughter back against Lou who’s already given up on finding her. It’s obvious from the first minutes that none of this is going to work, and the rest of the movie uses its run-time to drag that point through your guts like piano wire.
Against Riseborough, the others do have some trouble keeping up, coming off as stiff or false at times. John Leguizamo, in his small role, does some weird shit with his eyebrows that baffled me. There’s a part where Betty runs through the woods calling for Nancy, and she’s either laughing or crying, but there’s no way of telling which. In a movie leaning so much on reactions and facial expressions, any missteps muddy the subtext of an entire scene.
Luckily, the substance remains on Nancy, with most of the film’s mystery resting on what Nancy knows or doesn’t know and why she would put herself in such a dicey position in the first place. It’s this that leaves her in a constantly emotionally fragile state and drives an unwavering unease through the whole of the film.