Release: Friday, September 21, 2018
Written by: Sam Levinson
Directed by: Sam Levinson
Starring: Odessa Young; Suki Waterhouse; Hari Nef; Abra; Colman Domingo; Bill Skarsgård; Joel McHale; Bella Thorne; Maude Apatow; Anika Noni Rose
Distributor: Neon; Gozie AGBO; Refinery29
With a title like Assassination Nation, you probably shouldn’t go in expecting a film of subtlety and nuance, and that is exactly what you do not get in director Sam Levinson’s sophomore feature. In fact, a lack of subtlety and nuance is the entire point of this little social experiment. Seven years after his début Another Happy Day and Levinson’s imagined a sort of Salem Witch Trials for the Twitter generation, a vicious American satire that finds four teenage girls becoming the collective target of a town gone mad when a malicious data hack exposes everyone’s sordid little secrets and floods the streets with violence.
In the town of Salem (state unspecified), Lily Colson (Odessa Young) is just another normal high school student with a tight-knit group of friends in Bex (transgender actress Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), and they do pretty normal teenage things — finding that sweet selfie angle, partying, blowing off studying. When a casual hacker (Noah Gavin) stumbles upon a video of the town’s staunchly anti-gay mayor cross-dressing and engaging with male escorts, he can’t help but share the hypocrisy with the rest of the townsfolk and posts it to an online forum, leading to public outrage and an inevitable suicide. But Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) won’t be the last to be outed. Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo)’s phone is the next to be hacked, precious photos of his young daughter presumed to be damning evidence of a pedophile.
In a movie that gets progressively more uncomfortable this awkwardness is merely the first drops of rain before the deluge. Still, there’s something really disconcerting about the way the chaos begins, the adults being the first to fall victim to their own indiscretions. But then it gets REALLY personal, with a major data breach exposing Bex’s identity as a transwoman and that of Lily’s secret contact ‘Daddy.’ Nude photos go viral, causing friendships to sour and intimate relationships to end in bitterness and violence. Locker room jocks are outed as homosexuals, then beaten down with the baton of Proper Masculinity, while computer geeks are tortured into becoming snitches, then murdered on camera anyway. “For the lolz.”
Aesthetically, Assassination Nation is what you get if you dropped Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers into the middle of The Purge. This is a very stylish presentation that revels in bloodletting as a holy war is ignited between the people of Salem. And on the matter of style, for me this film is also a tale of two halves, the first sluggishly paced as Levinson sets about establishing key relationship dynamics, like Lily and her envious, big-eyed beau Mark (a nasty Bill Skarsgård). Cut to the second half and the film really livens up. Despite the generally unpleasant characters it took all I had not to marvel at Levinson’s audacity as he turns the fall-out into an allegory for the most offensive aspects of social media — sanctimonious opinion-shoving, ad hominem attacks and baseless speculation.
Assassination Nation isn’t your typical high school drama. Lily isn’t your typical teen protagonist, and she and her friends aren’t your typical ‘Witches of Salem.’ Style and substance combine to form an explosive, invariably controversial package. Levinson throws down the hammer when it comes to expressing his thoughts on what life on the internet is doing to our life outside of it. Unfortunately he does this often to the detriment of our entertainment, with the coda about society’s double standards when it comes to gender roles tacked on at the end being particularly on-the-nose. Levinson’s forceful execution doesn’t always pay intellectual dividends, but it does succeed in creating an experience that isn’t easily forgotten.
Moral of the Story: In defense of Assassination Nation, it gives you fair warning up front about what it plans to do to you, opening with a list of trigger warnings in brilliantly colored font describing everything from teen drug/alcohol abuse, toxic masculinity, homophobia, rape/murder and even giant frogs. If any of that stuff seems like it would be problematic, I would actually heed that message and find something else. For better as well as for worse, this is an intense, in-your-face confrontation.
Running Time: 108 mins.
Quoted: “This is the 100% true story of how my town, Salem, lost its motherf**king mind.”
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