Assassination Nation, 2018.
Written and Directed by Sam Levinson.
Starring Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, Colman Domingo, Bill Skarsgård, Joel McHale, Anika Noni Rose, Bella Thorne, Maude Apatow, Danny Ramirez, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Noah Galvin, Susan Misner, Lukas Gage, Jeff Pope, Joe Chrest, J.D. Evermore, and Cody Christian.
After a malicious data hack exposes the secrets of the perpetually American town of Salem, chaos decends and four girls must fight to survive, while coping with the hack themselves.
As many of you can probably understand, critics do not watch movies in a bubble, meaning that when Assassination Nation (written and directed by Sam Levinson, son of Barry Levinson) began with a “trigger warning” montage creating awareness that we are about to see pretty much every politically incorrect activity imaginable, I had PTSD flashbacks to watching Life Itself a week ago, a movie that shoehorns every kind of conceivable trauma in a hokey, convoluted, and unearned way to generate emotion.
Levinson’s film, however, is an ambitious satire that seemingly wants to promote social awareness to the dangers of the Internet in aggressively confronting fashion, but it’s also a complex and complicated take on teenage female empowerment, sexuality, peer pressure, bullying, empathy, gun-control, mob mentalities and the outraged men who impulsively incite crazed rioting in misguided righteousness, and the nature of privacy in the modern world. Honestly, it’s also about so much more, as Assassination Nation is certainly not short on ideas that it, unfortunately, is unable to communicate narratively with cohesion or layered characterization.
The bulk of the story follows Lily, a game Odessa Young turning in a strong performance that effectively sells how her appropriately named town of Salem has treated her like a witch, blaming her for a wave of digital hackings beginning with a hypocritical right-wing anti-LGBTQ mayor who voluntarily crossdresses and participates in homoerotic activities as a means to get off, followed by the high school principal who may or may not be a pedophile, and not before long the private data, including steamy conversations and erotic pictures, from the entire suburb. Although she hangs out with a tightknit circle of friends (Hari Nef’s transgender Bex dating a stud on the football team, alongside two more classmates played by Suki Waterhouse and Abra that really have nothing much of interest to write about), Lily spends the majority of her time ignoring them and her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgard) to flirt/sext an older man that she calls “Daddy” (Joel McHale). Lily also has opinionated stances on expressing sexuality and taking nude selfies, likely counter behavior from her prudish upbringing. The complexity lies in that she is 18 and appears mature enough to understand her actions and the effects they could cause, but at the same time might not. In that regard, her behavior could also be considered a byproduct of toxic masculinity, and the impression that self-worth is defined by the male gaze (both of her love interests only seem to care about physical affection).
However you choose to interpret it, Lily is clearly the only character with a great deal of thought put behind, and one that develops over time. As the final act organically transitions into a version of The Purge that contains more substance than any film in that franchise so far, Lily delivers feminist call to arms speeches in front of an American flag, and accounting for both the events in Assassination Nation and the malicious things that go on in the real world, good luck resisting cheering her on, even if the rest of her posse exists only to give the action an extra kick of bloody violence. Aside from all the neon light cinematography, there is a single-take home invasion framed from the outside that is both unsettling to watch and impressive craftsmanship.
Again, the problem is that everything surrounding Lily feels inconsequential or pointless; Bex is the only other character that feels utilized with a purpose, most notably in a scene where she and the group discuss empathy and the mayor’s suicide following the Internet leak of his sordid behavior. At one point, Assassination Nation split screens up to three different interactions going on simultaneously, which not only hurts storytelling clarity but suffers because Lily is the only actual character here. Also, for a film that brazenly touts itself as out to upset and offend, Assassination Nation feels like depravity inspired by Harmony Korine or Larry Clark that is too trepidatious to commit to the teenagers gone wild tone that the film visibly wants to embody. That’s not to say the movie is necessarily tasteful, but it will push fewer buttons than it is evidently setting out to push.
Nevertheless, if one soaks in the themes and fixates on the grander scope, Assassination Nation is a blast that feels grounded in reality even as it switches from Internet privacy lecturing to a gory female-centered tale of survival throughout the night. As soon as it’s discovered by Salem that Lily is promiscuous and sexually relaxed, the residents inexplicably want to abuse her mentally and physically (this is before she is branded as the scapegoat of the data hacking); how hilarious that the same fuckboys who constantly solicit for nudes are the first to slut-shame once impure secrets are revealed. Go right ahead Lily, exact your vengeance. It’s justified.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com