Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Nerve

“Lights Out” is also new to Blu-Ray this week, conveniently just in time for Halloween.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that seeks to strike a “Nerve,” to borrow the title, with the movie-going public. It tackles an issue, critiques our beliefs, and provides social commentary. The trick with these movies is to not make them too heavy handed. It doesn’t hurt for them to be entertaining either.

The movie “Nerve” derives its title from a social media game called “Nerve.” It’s basically truth or dare—but without the truth. There are two categories to sign up for: Watchers and Players. The game lasts twenty-four hours, and the idea is to have the most Watchers by the end of the night. Players gain Watchers by agreeing to perform dares around the city (in this case New York), and they get some cash prizes to boot.

Young wallflower Vee (Emma Roberts), who is the sweet, gawky, girl next door type, gets embarrassed by outgoing best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) early on in the movie. Sydney is a Player, and during lunch at a local hangout, she tests Vee to see if Vee has what it takes to be a Player. Vee fails that test, but it prompts the high school senior to take a good look at her life, who she is, and where she’s going. Much to the behest of her other good friend Tommy (Miles Heizer), Vee signs up to be a Player in “Nerve.” Poor Tommy too—he’s the voice of reason in the insane world of “Nerve.” Much like in real life, the voice of reason gets ignored a lot.

Once in, Vee meets Ian (Dave Franco), who is also a Player. Anyone who has seen more than two movies knows right away that something is up with him. What is up I shall not reveal, as it provides the movie with an interesting twist and a suspenseful third act.

Not that it is all saved for the end. The Watchers have Vee and Ian team up for their dares, and the two get into some crazy situations. It’s fun to watch how they coordinate their efforts to get the dare done and the solutions they come up with.  It helps too that Roberts and Franco have great chemistry together.

I give “Nerve” a lot of credit for story direction and character arc—Vee is not the same person by the end of the movie that she is at the beginning. Moreover, the thematic undertones of the movie are strong, and they’re pitched at just the right level. That is, they’re not so subtle that they can be missed, nor are they so obvious that you feel like you’re in a lecture.

Take for example the primary choice in the game “Nerve”: Are you a Watcher or a Player? How about that for a metaphor for life? When the game asks Vee this question, the movie is asking it to the audience. Do you just sit idly by and go through the motions day in and day out and just watch other people live their lives, or are you someone who is living your life to the fullest and following your dreams? It’s a big question, asked in a clever and entertaining way.

Then there’s the commentary regarding social media, specifically the anonymity of it. People get away with saying and doing what they want because no one knows who they are. To a point this is a good thing. There are people whose jobs would be in jeopardy for stating certain political points, for example, and for them anonymity is a must. But those people aren’t harming anybody. Where do we, as a society, draw the line on what online behavior is harmful and what isn’t? And who’s to judge? After all, there are some people who are offended at everything. Do we really want these buzzkills to run things? It’s a profound question that provides food for thought.

Without giving away too much, I have to comment that what happens at the end of “Nerve” involves what many will view as doxing (publishing private information about someone online without their consent). I personally find doxing extremely distasteful and low—only Internet vermin do it. I will admit that I saw it that way at first and was taken aback by it. Then I thought about it a bit more and realized that it’s not doxing so much as it is an eye opener. After all, doxing tends to have malicious intent, and this doesn’t. Rather, it’s a way for the hordes of the Internet to wake up and take a good look at themselves and see who they are when they’re anonymous. Is this who they’d be if people knew their real names? Another interesting question.

“Nerve” is surprisingly full of thought-provoking questions. Much debate and discussion about its themes can be had after watching this movie. Or, just sit back and be entertained by the engaging narrative and suspenseful, fast-paced direction. Much like the choice between being a Watcher or being a Player, it’s your call. Buy it on Amazon: Nerve [Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD].

Also Out This Week

Lights Out

Fear of the dark. It’s a basic, primal, human fear. Our cave-dwelling forebears knew that nasty, nocturnal animals hunted in the dark and that it’s not safe. Due to this, they naturally developed an aversion to dark places. The discovery of fire was not only important so that ancient people could cook food and kill germs, bacteria, and parasites. It was also important as a source of light to allow them to see in the dark.

“Lights Out” plays with this primal fear. Instead of nocturnal animals, this time the fear is of a supernatural spirit. Her name is Diana (played in the shadows by Alicia Vela-Bailey). Diana has an interesting weakness as far as malevolent spirits go: She’s harmless in the light. In other words, if it’s dark and Diana is around, watch out—she can get you. But flip on a lamp or shine a flash light in her direction, and poof—she’s gone and can’t do a thing to you.

This of course leads to multiple moments over the course of “Lights Out” where lights fail or the power goes out. The conceit makes sense in the opening sequence, in which we see a man named Paul (Billy Burke) contend with motion sensor lights while investigating a strange noise. But by the time he makes it to his well-lit office and the power fails on him, it started to put a bad taste in my mouth. I could understand if Diana was somehow messing with the electricity and causing the power failure, but it’s never clear that that’s the case. There is just way too much bad luck involving power outages in this movie.

The hackneyed jump scares that are way overused in modern horror pop up in “Lights Out” as well. It’s a shame too, because this is one movie that needs not rely on such cheap and cheesy tactics—the natural sounds and the visuals are plenty scary on their own.

That’s the place from where this movie derives its strength: it plays very well with the human instinct to fear the dark. In spite of the idiotic jump scares, there is an eerie, skin crawling atmosphere provided by the darkness. To know that slithery Diana with her razor sharp fingernails could be creeping around in any shadow is terrifying. I also have to credit this movie for its brilliant use of a black light, which provides the impetus for a very chilling sequence, culminating in a horrifying reveal. Very well done. So while “Lights Out” has some issues—namely the unnecessary use of jump scares and the overly inconvenient power outages, on the whole it is an effective horror movie. Rent it.

More New Releases: “Mr. Church,” poignant Bruce Beresford drama with Eddie Murphy as a cook who befriends a family; “Skiptrace,” Jackie Chan/Johnny Knoxville buddy movie team up directed by Renny Harlin; “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” a national manhunt is ordered for a rebellious kid and his foster uncle who go missing in the wild New Zealand bush, starring Sam Neill; and “Captain Fantastic,” with Viggo Mortensen as a father living off the grid with his six kids who is suddenly forced to integrate into society.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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