Assassination Nation, 2018.
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, and Cody Christian.
This is a thousand percent a true story about how the quiet, all-American town of Salem absolutely lost its mind.
Fuck me up some more why don’t you, Sam Levinson? Assassination Nation is a hand grenade lobbed with intent to disorient, alarm, and eviscerate. Far more than “evil internet” cloud-yelling. Closing monologue impact screams frustration from a generation that’s been failed and blamed by boomers who couldn’t abide by regulations they themselves issued. “Don’t look at me, I just got here,” scowls a revolution-ready girl into her laptop camera. Our world, the world so many people my age and younger inherited, is crumbling and we’re left piecing together someone else’s mess – yet we’re the bad guys? “Millennials are killing everything from housing markets to mayonnaise!” Levinson’s “true” story is about how the town of Salem lost its “motherfucking mind” – a gen-now seismic blast of protest, angst, and deserved goddamn catharsis.
Odessa Young stars as Lily Colson, a screen-glued student who lives each day tethered to her smartphone just like everyone else. Alongside besties Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), the four “#blessed” teens party their way through high school’s social minefield. Life is good – until a mysterious hacker exposes everyone’s digital secrets. First Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss), who’s outed as a cross-dressing “deviant.” Then Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo), dubbed a “pedophile” for possessing bathtub (aka “naked”) pictures of his 6-year-old daughter in his photo roll. Next? Thousands of Salem residents – including Lily – have their online histories exposed for all to read, judge, and chastise. What happens when systems break down? We riot and look for a single source to blame. Enter Lily, who’s assumed Salem’s hacker when a classmate (is forced to) confess her (false) guilt via online stream.
“My name is Lily Colson, and I probably won’t survive the night.” Commence hunting.
Before launching into internet probes and weaponized information, let me say Assassination Nation is captivating to behold and blasts one of my favorite scores of 2018. Marcell Rév’s cinematography pays homage to Japanese revenge thrillers and scopes one masterful single-shot siege sequence that tracks a mob break-in completely outside the victims’ house. Rév’s lens peers through windows, tailing tactical movements while Ian Hultquist’s electro-punk-pop score beats to the pulse of societal anarchy. It’s a striking combination that hyperlapsed Mean Girls schoolyard sass and deranged “Purge Night” violence with pep-rally electricity. Levinson’s package is boisterous, showy, and sick for the pain his message inflicts.
Next order of business: Assassination Nation will not be for everyone. Take the #TriggerWarning beforehand that cycles through preview clips of “offensive” material to follow. Levinson mocks YouTube/Instagram/Twitter culture by submerging his characters in prototypical net-savvy behavior. Bare-most selfies, iPhone camera lights brightening every scene, online trash talk – Lily’s squad goals promote “whorishness” and “filthiness” as determined by (older) onlookers with their own quick-minded disapproval. It’s a massively valid argument – “you’re the one sexualizing these photos” – but one that is destined to turn certain demographics completely off. One’s provocative commentary will be dismissed by others as flippant hippy rhetoric and excuses for immorality.
Hence the point of this timely divisive culture bomb.
Assassination Nation is transformatively brutal. Unflinching. In-your-face and for the “Likes.” This will affront and offend some, but those in-line with Joseph Kahn or James DeMonaco productions will take kindly to Lily’s burn-it-all-down survivalism. Hari Nef’s transgender pop-queen Bex is integral to Levinson’s messaging, mistreated with a noose’s hold by “Slay ‘Em High” football bros who look to “cleanse” Salem of its “perverted” population. Clueless with a razor’s edge, until citizens lash out against whoever they deem “evil” by exposure of dirty secrets. As the end-credits depict – an African American marching band covering today’s radio fodder while walking Salem’s smoking streets – Assassination Nation goes for a long-take “This Is America” adaptation. Red, white, and blue draped over the most heinous, despicable actions imaginable. Certifiably chilling, vocal, and voracious assertions.
Levinson’s brand of horror is upgraded terrorism. Dirty bombs traded for exploitation of human hubris and our most untamed values. If that’s not scary, or unsettling, you need to reevaluate our current “World Star” climate. Everything is recorded. Everything comes with a coded imprint. “Assassination Nation” isn’t referencing murders, it’s warning of next-level attacks on character to come. Maybe Levinson didn’t need such on-the-head commentary as suggesting Russian interference, or explanation of wrongdoings boiled down to “idk, for the lulz?” (undercut impact in final moments) – but it’s an echo chamber of our times. As ridiculous, or far-fetched, or unbelievable as it seems, younger generations are being desensitized and hypnotized on a level previously unbeknownst. With that in mind, the preposterous becomes understandable.
Performances cut to the core of Izod shirts and suburban facades. We put on masks, be it online or in public, of who we think we *should* be. Cody Christian as the All-American football jock, Joel McHale as the dad next door (that bathroom sequence, OOOF), Bella Thorne as the cheerleader queen, Bill Skarsgård as Lily’s boyfriend – but what happens when you have no reason to sustain the charade? Bloodshed, mob rule, the desire to murder innocents based on personal judgment. As good as Young, Nef, Waterhouse, and Abra are at dishing about boys who don’t “go down” or salacious locker room jargon, Assassination Nation is about those who are exposed. Those forced in front of a public forum to atone for their “wrongdoings” (Colman Domingo’s “monster” family man) and those who populate salivating crowds hungry for blood and human “cancellations.” One man’s “downfall” is another’s Saturday night gossip, and *fuck* if that doesn’t terrify.
Assassination Nation is the next logical step in true-to-life, unspeakable civilization horrors. Eighth Grade gone apocalyptic. Decency on blast, generational damnation in question. There’s a lot to appreciate, and honestly, there’s a lot to hate. Sam Levinson’s brand of aggression won’t be for everyone, but those searching for marching-band spiritism over The Purge’s methodologies will be in luck. Levinson asserts himself as a filmmaker to watch, whether you’re on board with 90-ish minutes of mankind’s worst tendencies or not. Play this one *loud.* Levinson’s set to infuriate the very people who should appreciate what Assassination Nation has to say.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★★ / Movie: ★★★★
Matt spends his after-work hours posting nonsense on the internet instead of sleeping like a normal human. He seems like a pretty cool guy, but don’t feed him after midnight just to be safe (beers are allowed/encouraged). Follow him on Twitter/Instagram (@DoNatoBomb).