The suspense thriller gets a modern makeover in Nerve, which takes on both modern cyber culture and the cult of instant celebrity in a slickly produced, fast-paced crowd-pleaser aimed straight at the audience that’s the most likely to get it. Nerve is self-consciously cool to a fault, but it does know who its target audience is.
Nerve is particularly timely in light of the current worldwide furor over Pokémon GO. The movie’s title comes from an app game called Nerve, where players take text message dares for money. At first the dares are relatively innocuous, say, mooning the people in the stands at a pep rally, or eating dog food.
Soon, though, we realize that things are going to escalate, and as the money for accepting the dares mounts, so does the danger level. “The Watchers” get this all instantly on their smartphones, and popular players become literally instant celebrities.
Emma Roberts believable as perpetual teen
Emma Roberts, who’s been rapidly building a credible resumé divided between features (Adult World, We’re the Millers) and TV (American Horror Story, Scream Queens), convincingly plays a high school senior despite the fact that she’s 25.
Her character, Venus, known to her friends as “Vee,” is finishing high school on Staten Island, living with her overprotective, single mother (Juliette Lewis) in the shadow of her older brother’s untimely death.
Her mother openly relishes the prospect of Vee continuing to live at home and commuting to a local college for the next few years, while Vee privately dreams of going to art school in California, and actually has an email of acceptance, which has to be responded to soon or never.
Vee also lives in the shadow of her outgoing girlfriend Sydney (Emily Meade), who is a fast-rising star on Nerve. When Vee decides to sign on as a player, and not a mere watcher, she initially finds a new source of excitement and self-respect. Moreover ,she finds a new love interest, Ian (Dave Franco), whose charm may hide something dangerous in his past. None of this sits terribly well with Sydney, who starts to feel pressure to up the ante on her own Nerve stunts.
From the same bookstore section as The Hunger Games
Young adult novels are one of the hottest sources of movie properties these days, and this is no exception. Based on the YA novel of the same name by Jeanne Ryan, Nerve deals almost exclusively with young people in extraordinary circumstances.
It primarily differs from recent YA franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent in being set in a recognizable present rather than a dystopian future. The novel came out in 2012, and in a sign of how fast technology is developing, the book was intended to be a little more science fictiony than its movie adaptation does only four years later.
Nerve is co-directed by Paranormal Activity veterans Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. The duo helmed the generally well-thought of third installment of the Paranormal Activity franchise, and also the fourth, even more widely considered the worst.
It would have been easy for Nerve to have been done in the same mock, found-footage style as the Paranormal Activity movies, and thank God it wasn’t. You almost have to believe the idea was raised at some point, but perhaps the device is already retro. We can hope so, at any rate.
There’s no denying Nerve‘s adrenaline
That’s not to say that Nerve is without its distracting directorial flourishes. Completely unnecessary, obtrusive graphics are periodically superimposed on establishing shots just to remind you you’re watching a movie. That’s seldom a good idea, and it isn’t here.
Schulman and Joost get a lot right, though. There is an immediacy to the movie that can’t be denied, and that’s not just because of the subject matter. They keep their camera close to their characters when it isn’t zipping through and over the streets at crystal meth speeds. There’s no denying the movie’s adrenaline. The action is well-executed, and a high speed motorcycle ride blindfolded on Fifth Avenue is scary and riveting.
There is a conspicuous absence of police during some of this mayhem, although the movie’s irresistible momentum throttles it over most of the lapses in logic as though they were speed bumps. This is exactly the sort of thing that’s likely to raise its head over post-movie pizza, though.
Nerve also wisely eschews some typical thriller tactics, particularly with music. Rather than a blood and thunder orchestral approach, the score reverberates with contemporary, popular music, creating a post-modernist John Hughes feel, as two young lovers set out on a one night odyssey of adventure through the streets of New York. It could easily be the same approach in a romantic comedy.
The music selections are deliberately ironic, camouflage for the thriller hiding in the tall grass of a youth-oriented rom/com. Benign-sounding music used ironically in a scary movie goes back at least as far as Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, with Mia Farrow’s nursery room vocals played over pink script opening credits. That approach became a staple in the early seventies anytime an urban couple moved to the country to find satanic cults.
A lot of the success of the distraction technique here rests on the shoulders, and the big, brown eyes, of Dave Franco, who plays Ian with a disarming, straight-up sincerity, and none of the smarminess his older brother is increasingly associated with. Franco, by the way, is actually older than Roberts and is also flirting with perpetual-juvenile-role-Hell.
The villain is in the mirror
Elevating the movie is its awareness of trends in modern society, particularly the fast-moving immediacy of the online world and social media. Nerve’s players are required to upload their stunts to the internet, where they’re viewed live in real time by the watchers.
Nerve is completely in touch with the generation who don’t need TV because their entertainment is constantly with them, in their purse, their back pocket or on their wrist.
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Clearly, this gives rise to instant celebrity status, but there’s a dark aspect to this. As the dares become more and more dangerous, a homicidal disregard for human life becomes apparent in the watchers. Strip away the technology here and you have a spectator sensibility that isn’t at all removed from the well-bred Romans who gave thumbs-up or thumbs-down to determine the fate of wounded gladiators.
Also, for the most part, Nerve functions without a conventional villain. There’s no James Bond or Marvel Comics supervillain twirling a Snidely Whiplash mustache as he contemplates global domination. Technology-fed social trends are the bad guy here: the villain is in the mirror.
Nerve is at its best when it lets its dark subtext function as a backdrop. This is more than creepy enough. Disappointingly though, Nerve ultimately settles for a straight-out-of-the-box, Hollywood ending which seems to have jumped ship from Saw or The Purge and taken over. It doesn’t fit and takes the movie’s entire IQ down a notch.
Nerve is a smart, unusual thriller, shrewdly targeted at an audience that actually buys tickets. While it’s regrettable that its last act doesn’t live up to the lead-in, it still delivers an entertaining and provocative hour and thirty-six minutes.
This could have been the sort of thing that Alfred Hitchcock would be making in the twenty-first century, though, and it’s hard not to feel that it misses its potential. There’s still enough here to hook an audience though, and give them a little to chew on after, along with the post-movie pizza.
What do you think? Does Nerve have something to say about modern society? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Nerve is scheduled to be released on July 27, 2016, in the U.S. and on August 11, 2016 in the U.K. Find international release dates here.
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