Highly stylized but frequently clunky, Assassination Nation is at its best when it doesn’t get too bogged down in ideology. The premise of a widespread data breach is in many ways the ultimate 21st century horror show, and writer/director Sam Levinson astutely chose young women (including a black woman and a trans woman) as the vehicles through which a town would process its most hypocritical vitriol. The cinematography is especially imaginative during a disorienting attack, including an anxious, voyeuristic long shot from outside of the house where the girls are hiding and a beautiful underwater staple gun fight for this bonkers attempt at high-concept horror.
In the town of Salem, best friends Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) find themselves in the crosshairs of their small town when a hacker releases half the town’s cell phone data – including browser histories, all images, and other sordid details. The town descends into chaos, tearing itself apart while looking for the hacker and punishing its citizens for the contents of the data breaches, in a never-ending cycle of violence and voyeurism.
The Bella Thorne stunt casting as Reagan is only interesting insofar as she looks more like herself than she usually does on screen. Maude Apatow’s Grace and her baseball bat are the real stars here, and it’s a pity that she’s one of several characters we lose track of. Bill Skarsgard is effectively creepy as Lily’s awful boyfriend Mark. This movie features the rare competent faculty member, Colman Doming as the sympathetic Principal Turrell. Joel McHale is wickedly good as Lily’s neighbor, Nick, a role that could have been merely evil or gutless, but instead is lethally charming whenever he wants to be. Anika Noni Rose as Nance, on the other hand, feels criminally underused, and suffers from the standard horror movie tropes.
Assassination Nation is often overly dedicated to convincing us that it’s a feminist film, with a very specific definition of what that means: a character wears a “feminist” necklace, toxic masculinity is name-checked, and the young women leads call men who don’t perform oral sex on women partners “psychopaths.” But it’s a whole lot of tell rather than show, which ultimately drags, and Levinson is unwilling to stop talking about the male gaze long enough to stop employing it. The often-confused script can’t quite decide which it’s more proud of: lip service to consent, or using straw men to criticize it. These muddled moments make the cumbersome ideology even more confusing.
All that being said, there are many moments when Assassination Nation successfully executes feminist filmmaking, which largely seems to be its aim, albeit at an entry level. The main group of girls frequently comment on which sex acts they finds gross and which are actually enjoyable, there’s a surprisingly nuanced running theme of dads, daughters, sexualization and daddy kink, and Lily and Bex have a frank conversation about the outing of a closeted politician who ran on a family values platform. The scenes showing street harassers, abusive boyfriends, and homophobic jerks and the genuine distress they cause are more effective here than the speeches.
The inclusion of a trans character played by a trans actor as one of the four leads is well done in that it’s handled deftly until the story forces this attribute to the foreground. Even then, Bex fills the best friend role and happens to be trans, as opposed to the other way around, and several harmful tropes are sidestepped. A hookup scene is particularly well done, advancing her story and helping us get a better understanding of her place in the school. This is all helped along by Nef’s performance, which stands out for her ability to imbue one of the movie’s many thinly drawn characters with real feeling.
Assassination Nation demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of how the internet works from the perspective of the people whose lives take place on, particularly young women. The way that the release of a man’s data means an onslaught of harassment for a woman, the deeply flawed yet dedicated Reddit detective agency, and a decent way to include Snapchat/Instagram stories all add realism to what is an otherwise-over the top movie.
Speaking of going over the top: it’s not until an hour in that the extreme, slapstick violence gets going in earnest. Assassination Nation opens by telling you we’re heading toward a town ready to murder four eighteen-year-old girls, but it wants to really earn its bedlam. There’s some jarring but realistically filmed violence early on, but it wants to sell you on its descent into mayhem. It mostly works in the lead up to the new world order, though it was incredibly hard to believe that no women would organize for so long during the chaos.
There are some markedly off-key notes, including the completely lackluster kicker and a strange musical credits sequence that tonally feels like it belongs in a different movie entirely and features far more black people than the entire rest of the movie combined. Em’s desire to direct “only male rape revenge films…but still sexy” – like Straw Dogs but with Dustin Hoffman getting raped – feels like the kind of thing only a man would think a woman would say. The setting of Salem feels like it was selected so that perennial high school evil kid Cody Christian can say “Slay ‘em High” and to make the slightest of nods toward the witch trials. But no one on planet earth could mistake this Louisiana set for Salem, Massachusetts.
Assassination Nation is packed with visual style and plenty of insightful things to say about how the internet has weaponized the simultaneous hypersexualization and slut-shaming of young women. When the feminism is baked in with lighter touches, like the hacker telling Lily to smile, the way almost every man goes from compliments to abuse as soon as he is turned down, and the Carrie Fischer shout-out, it feels organic. Visually satisfying as it moves from a pastiche of millennial pink to a literal bloodbath and the ultimate girl gang Halloween costume, Assassination Nation wants to have its feminist cake and wear its booty jorts and bra tops too, and it mostly gets away with it.