A teacher of mine used to encourage us to “study the poets of our time.” What he was really saying was to pay attention to the thinkers and the voices in our pop culture, to what people in our day and time are thinking, feeling and struggling with. Doing so provides several important benefits: it allows us to be sympathetic and understanding; it allows us to see potential trends and problems before they fully evolve; it allows us to speak intelligently into our culture, and it allows us to show (and/or tell) how Jesus meets their need and is relevant to their issues. Nerve is one of those movies that I would encourage people to see, not necessarily for entertainment value (though it turned out to be more entertaining and even likeable than I had expected), but more for educational purposes, as a study of the poets of our time.
Nerve is an online game in which you have a choice to be a watcher or a player. Watchers have to pay a fee for the privilege of spectating. Players are given dares, a time frame to complete them in, and a sum of money if they complete the dare. It’s a little like the gladiator games of old. Players aren’t just competing to win their dares; they’re also competing for popularity with the watchers.
Of course, some of the dares are dumb and gross, like being dared to eat dog food. Others are more explicit, like daring a girl to flash her school. Others are dangerous…so dangerous there are rumors that kids are dying. FAIR WARNING: The movie starts in the gutter. I get why—they were making a point about what the game could be. They didn’t sugar coat it or glorify the game in any way. They (the movie makers) made it clear that a game like this wasn’t going to be “nice” or “clean”. There are some icky comments from high schoolers, and a scene were a girl moons her school. I’m not seeing that “needed” to be in there, but that I get that it wasn’t there to be gratuitous so much as to make a point about the nature of such a game and the people who would be first attracted to play it. Sydney, the mooner, was crass and insecure and looking for attention through shock value. Of course she was drawn to a game like Nerve. It allowed her a platform to get the attention she craved doing outlandish things. Vee, her sweet and quiet best friend, was not interested in the game at first. It wasn’t her style. She wasn’t that kind of girl. To my point about the warning, however, I say the movie was making a point because it didn’t stay there. If it just wanted to be gross and vulgar, it easily could have. This movie was far more purposeful, however, and quickly moved on from the dumb and vulgar stupidity to the more sinister but subtler dangers and actually had some things worth saying (and got out of the gutter to say them).
What makes a sweet girl like Vee want to do something stupid like play a game like Nerve? It’s really not just a hypothetical in this movie, but a poignant question for real life. What makes good, sweet, innocent people do something so out of character? What makes people get ensnared into something bad when they aren’t naturally inclined that way?
Several factors contributed to Vee’s entrapment. First, her friend. Sydney and Vee were opposites, and Vee saw the good in Sydney. What Vee didn’t see was Sydney’s subtle influence on her. Sydney was playing the game and introduced Vee to the concept. Things grow on us over time, or at least they grow less offensive as we grow accustomed to them. The seed, that small thought that the game wasn’t all that bad or dangerous (because she could always say “no”, right?!) was planted in her head from Sydney’s interaction with it.
A second factor was criticism. Vee was really mercilessly abused by Sydney for being too conservative. She was told she would always be a watcher, never a player. It wasn’t just that they dared her to do it, but that they challenged her identity. Vee had sterner stuff inside her than Sydney ever dreamed. Sterner stuff than Sydney had inside her own self, even, by far. The thing is, because Vee wasn’t a risk taker, wasn’t audacious, didn’t need attention… it was also easy to assume, wrongly, that she didn’t have grit. Vee’s identity was challenged and that was more powerful for a person with her strength of character than mere peer pressure. But to be sure, peer pressure factored in as well.
A final factor, a huge one, was the money. Vee needed money for college. Nerve was an easy way to get money, so long as she could refuse any challenge she didn’t want to do.
The first challenge wasn’t too big of a deal. Kiss a stranger. She wouldn’t normally, but with a large sum of money on the line, and a chance to prove to her BFF what she was made of, she was willing. That kiss introduced her to another player, Ian. The watchers liked them together and the ensuing dares involved them both, together. Which is an interesting point, actually. She would never have gone as far alone as she did with Ian at her side. When the dares got too much and she wanted to quit, he encouraged her to keep on. And every time they completed a dare, it was a wild rush of adrenaline and a feeling of accomplishment, not to mention a large financial payout. Everything escalated—their confidence in having accomplished the dare, the rush, the money…and the dares. Until it went too far.
Eventually the watchers crossed a line in their dare and Vee wanted out. But, no surprise to anyone who knows anything about real life, Vee and Ian were in too deep. Vee got a message on her phone from the game, “Now we own your life, your finances, your family… The only way out is to win. See you in the finals.” Vee was trapped. She later found out Ian had already played the game in another city and the same thing had happened to him. He was playing again because a win would be the only way he and his family would be free.
The game was like an addiction—it destroyed all who got in too deep. Some people may only dabble and get away fairly free from harm, but most are like Vee and Ian. They think it’s harmless. They think they are in control. They think they can walk away from it whenever they want. Before long, however, they have lost control, lost their money, hurt and/or endangered and/or lost the people they love most. And this thing they thought they would just try has escalated and escalated and is now telling them it owns them and they can never escape.
Vee had a wonderful response, however. She took responsibility. She didn’t blame anyone else, not Sydney for pushing her into it, not Ian for encouraging her to keep going or for lying about his former involvement, not her money troubles… She simply took responsibility. “I got me into this.” Not only that, but her plan to get out of the game involved helping others take responsibility, too.
The game came down to three finalists and a challenge to kill each other. During the game prior, watchers were watching primarily online. Players were to video themselves doing the acts, and if watchers were nearby, they too would record on their phones and post the videos online. For the final dare, watchers came in a huge mob wearing masks to watch, full of bloodlust, the final showdown.
Vee hits on a central problem of the game in this final scene. She challenges the watchers’ love of anonymity. They watch from the safety of their home screens. They watch in person from the safety of a mask (reminiscent of the KKK). They aren’t technically doing anything wrong; it’s not illegal. They hide—behind screens, masks and technicalities and masses (safety in numbers, right?). They live vicariously through others. And they take responsibility for nothing. “Take off your masks and show yourselves. Don’t you see you’re ALL still responsible for what happens tonight? Even if you’re just watching? [We] can’t kill each other for a game! … Then shoot me; I dare you. … Take off your masks. THAT takes nerve.” The mob is hypocritical. It nearly always is. It requires her to be brave, but asks nothing of itself. It demands she do the unthinkable and kill another person, saying it’s not responsible for what she does, but not a person in that mob would identify themselves. Not a one would pull the trigger themselves. Not a one was willing to admit that they were, through their actions, accessories to murder.
I won’t totally spoil the movie by telling how it’s resolved. The point of this article isn’t about the resolution, but about the themes.
The Bible says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3
That reality, that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses should be motivation to live rightly, boldly, bravely, righteously… In this movie, however, we see how that concept is so easily perverted. The great cloud of witnesses was problematic because it was only great in terms of size, not quality. The witnesses in Hebrews were great in quality. The writer had just listed in chapter 11 the faith hall of fame, men and women who were known for their righteous daring and holiness and great faith. To live before such an audience is to be inspired to be great yourself. The witnesses watching Vee were of a different sort. They were not selected heroes, but the masses who were encouraging Vee to be less than she was, rather than greater.
I said this movie was worth watching because it allows you to study the times. So what is it saying about our times? First off, this game isn’t that unrealistic. Parents and teachers, etc., ought to be aware of the apps, games and technology that are out there, and to think carefully about where they might lead. (Just as students and individuals should do, but authority figures should do so as they have some ability to speak into that if they are thoughtful.) We could say the same for scientific issues like cloning, etc. It’s not enough to just ask if something is possible and/or legal and/or entertaining. Being legal or possible doesn’t make it morally right. And just because something is benign in its current form doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Things grow, change, escalate. It’s important to think carefully about what it will be come, where it might lead. Additionally, it’s important to realize that once you let something out of the bag, you can’t always get it back in the bag. Some things once started can’t be stopped. If Vee had known the game wouldn’t let her quit, she never would have started. This is one of Satan’s greatest lies…that you can always stop whenever you want to. Maybe it would be good to simply ask, what if I couldn’t stop or get out of this—if that was ever the case, then would I start it in the first place?
Another poignant message the movie has to say about our times is about the way technology has affected peer pressure. How we don’t feel responsible for our actions anymore because we are removed from reality. Additionally, we see in the movie how we are simultaneously hyper-aware and absolutely ignorant about the fact that we are always being watched. We long for “likes” and attention and fans and followers… and yet we are dumb enough to do things thinking it won’t matter, no one will know or be affected. Finally, the movie has a lot to say about sin, whether or not it knows it. (I’ve already mentioned addiction, but it’s included in sin.) The game is actually a rather incisive metaphor for sin and how it lures us in and then entraps us. We can all find ourselves in one of the main characters. Sydney who longs for attention and is quick to try anything. Vee who is cautious but gets lured in, largely to defend herself against criticism. Ian who keeps doing the wrong thing but for the right motive. Or Tommy, Vee’s best friend who always sees the game for what it is and steers clear.
In the end of it all, however, no matter how dark its message might be about our times, it’s a message of hope. There was redemption and freedom, not only for Vee and Ian, but for everyone. In this, the movie has something to say about the good news of Christ. Everyone is saved through the sacrifice and the blood of one. Just as man is saved through Christ’s sacrifice and his blood. He died and was risen for our sins. Vee died and was risen, not only for her sins, but also for the sins of the masses. (Sorry, I said I wasn’t going to spoil the ending…I kind of did.) They pleaded with the mob, asked them to change, to think about what they were doing, but there was no reasoning with them. The only “out” was death. And in death, the mob was sobered. They realized their sins. The game lost its charm and they were all freed from its tyranny. The only way to life is death. The Bible taught us that first, but Nerve shows us again just how true that is. There is hope for our times. It’s in Jesus and in following His example wherein we die to ourselves, take responsibility for our actions, and live righteously. The good news is, even just one person doing so—one Vee, one Jesus—can affect the masses.
Questions for Discussion:
- How realistic do think Nerve is? What do you know of that is available today that is similar in any way?
- How can peer pressure work for good and how can it work for bad? What things determine whether it’s good or bad?
- Would you say you are more inclined to be a watcher or player in life? Why?
- What things motivated Vee to play Nerve? Have you ever succumbed to similar pressures?
- Who are you more like, Vee, Sydney, Tommy or Ian? Explain.
- How is Nerve like getting addicted to something? How is Nerve like sin?
- How do you think technology has affected our sense of responsibility?
- How was Vee’s death like Jesus’ death?