Assassination Nation is unabashedly intense – and this is both its strength and downfall; the factor that could either draw you in or put you off.
The film does not hold back: director Sam Levinson takes its premise – full-blown hysteria in small-town America which quickly turns on a group of young women – and dives right in taking it to its furthest logical conclusion.
High school senior Lily (Odessa Young) and her tight-knit crew of friends – Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) – are on the receiving end of a town’s collective breakdown when an anonymous hacker begins leaking everyone’s private lives and the secrets they hide. The townspeople of Salem become humiliated and ostracised with each new revelation. Internet porn history, bad-mouthing messages, and incriminating webcam photos tear at the seams of young wholesome families, avowed conservative Christian politicians, and masculine jocks. This catalyses a backlash, transforming white picket fence America into vigilante gangs demanding gruesome retribution at a dizzying pace.
Assassination Nation, despite the often-overwhelming carnage on screen, capitulated in a frenzied visual style and over-the-top narrative, still manages to produce powerful truths about the world we have created. There is little space for subtext in the film, and a searing monologue from Lily in the third act peers into the modern, hypocritical society that is both created and held up, as well as detested and violently condemned by the same people.
Reviews unsurprisingly remark on the film’s parallels to Heathers in its dark subversion of high school superficiality – to the Purge in the mass participation in extreme violence, and the collapse of law and order – and to Kill Bill ultimately in the resilience and catharsis of revenge led by the four young women and emphatic stylization of nearly every scene. The incredibly well-executed cinematography is perfectly summed up in the ‘house invasion’ scene, when groups of masked men descend upon Lily and her friends. The incredible one-shot scene unfolds with the viewer peering in only through the windows, leaving the helpless audience unable to stop the unsuspecting victims walking straight into the vindictive mob. The film also successfully includes trigger warnings at the start of the film, embedding it into the aesthetic of the film – a first for me. A fast-cut montage with one-second of each described scene appears under the heading of ‘transphobia’ ‘homophobia’ ‘sexual assault’ ‘toxic masculinity’ and so on in a way that seamlessly and complimentarily weaves into its style.
Where the film excels in its escalation of action and thoughtful visuals, the film sadly stumbles when it comes to dialogue. Parts of the narrative that deal with genuine contemporary concerns of social media, transphobia, sexualisation, and so on, come across as jarring – as if a middle-aged man is trying to guess what young people talk like, based on memes and what comes up on Twitter timelines. These faux-young conversations leave many of the characters tragically under-written and many of the subject’s void of nuance.
This renders what could have been a substantive piece about four high school girls figuring out how to survive together in a world where the online has spilled into the offline into an exploitation genre project and leaves me feeling that the film was made up of brainstormed ideas that didn’t go any further. If anything, I’m disappointed that the film did not take its original concept further, that it did not use its marketed nod to the Salem Witch Trials as a way to follow through what would happen to a small-town America beyond a single night.
Assassination Nation is released on the 23rd of November 2018.
Words by Oliver Smith @oliisaac_.