NERVE. A technothriller that is hard to take your eyes off… until the finale

To prove that she’s not as introverted as everyone thinks, Vee decides to play the titular Nerve—a game that presents participants with increasingly crazy and dangerous challenges.

Lukasz Budnik

28 December 2023

Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman gained popularity in 2010 when their debut documentary film, made almost without a budget, “Catfish,” hit the big screens. The directing duo filmed the journey of Ariel’s brother, Nev Shulman, who traveled from New York to Michigan to meet in person a girl he had met on Facebook. And since it was the year 2010, Mark Zuckerberg’s platform was becoming a growing powerhouse and simultaneously a controversial subject (David Fincher’s “The Social Network” premiered the same year), the documentary about the disappointment related to verifying the truth behind the screen avatar gained surprisingly significant popularity. Catfish quickly turned into a series, with subsequent seasons produced by MTV.

Meanwhile, Shulman and Joost took on various tasks, including two parts of Paranormal Activity, but the Internet and its associated possibilities and threats remain a topic in which the creators of Catfish feel most comfortable to this day. It’s not surprising, then, that their film “Nerve” tells about the consequences of using a shady application; and it’s also not surprising that its action begins on a laptop desktop.

The computer belongs to Vee, played by Emma Roberts, a shy high school student. The girl has just been accepted to the desired photography studies but is afraid to tell her mother (Juliette Lewis). Vee, in fact, is mostly afraid—she doesn’t have the courage to talk to the handsome guy, can’t stand up to her controlling friend (Emily Meade), and constantly hides behind the lens of her camera. To prove that she’s not as introverted as everyone thinks, Vee decides to play the titular Nerve—a game that presents participants with increasingly crazy and dangerous challenges, from kissing a stranger in a restaurant to riding a speeding motorcycle blindfolded. For each subsequent task—watched, of course, by thousands of observers—players receive progressively larger sums, but only the winner of the entire game can keep the money.

Shulman and Joost quickly start suggesting to the audience that the authors of the application are not friendly programmers from some friendly start-up, and Nerve transforms from an intimate story into a regular technothriller. And it’s good—their film gains momentum, the atmosphere thickens, the action speeds up, and it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen. Although “Nerve” is shown in theaters, it’s evident that the directing duo primarily had the Internet-raised audience in mind, where attention must be captured at all costs, and even a few seconds of boredom are considered a disaster. The creators skillfully combine traditionally shot scenes with materials recorded with GoPro cameras and smartphones, and they operate better than many professional vloggers with internet visual slang. The fact that the film’s action takes place exactly in the next year is not insignificant, subtly emphasizing the speed of changes in the world stretching beyond the screens, in front of which we spend long hours every day.

It’s all the more unfortunate that in this frantic rush, Joost and Shulman stumble over their own feet when, in the moralistic, heavy-handed, poorly written finale, they abandon the technothriller in favor of a mundane version of “The Hunger Games” with smartphones in the lead roles. This move causes double damage to “Nerve”—not only does it sound false in the context of the entire story, but it also reveals elements that were previously skillfully covered by the fast pace and excellent execution. Suddenly, it turns out that most characters are essentially walking clichés, individual threads interlock all too conveniently, and the plot itself differs little from dozens of others. And since we are dealing with a theatrical film, unfortunately, at this point, we cannot press “stop” and switch to a page with funny cats.

Łukasz Budnik

Lukasz Budnik

He loves both silent cinema and contemporary blockbusters based on comic books. He looks forward to watching movie with his growing son.

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