Though it will likely not be to everyone’s taste, a lot of filmmakers need to take a hefty spoonful of inspiration from Assassination Nation’s gingerbread spectacle. It’s not an indie film by any stretch, but it’s the kind of quieter flick with a lot to say that we like a lot around these parts.
Assassination Nation throws everything plus the kitchen sink at the wall. Not all of it sticks, but the clean ambition and unbridled thrill of a film like this is a joy to behold.
You’d think that kicking off your film with a list of trigger warnings – from transphobia to misogyny by way of fragile male egos – would be a perfect way to tell your audience that you don’t give a damn about political correctness. You’d be wrong in this case. Assassination Nation is provocative, sure, but it’s not interested in ridiculing the struggles of minorities; rather, it’s about shining a stark spotlight on them.
The endless contempt for trigger warnings is something commonly found in the more particularly septic armpits of the internet, and Assassination Nation isn’t here to mock the “offended”. The trigger warnings are precisely that – content notices for what carnage to expect – but that kind of finger-on-the-pulse bombast defines Assassination Nation in the best way possible.
We follow Lily, Bex, Em and Sarah, a group of high schoolers trying to live out the remains of their senior year, socialising on the daily like adults trapped in a (literally) juvenile institution. Director and writer Sam Levinson has a really strong grasp of contemporary teen speak, nailing the tired world-weariness so many older people interpret as narcissism. The heightened dialogue fits with the kinetic landscape Levinson has created, so nothing rings false when it comes to the protagonists.
Things kick off when a mysterious hacker starts to leak the private details of powerful individuals in the four’s hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. Reputations are instantly tarnished, mobs take to the streets and the trickle-down effect eventually leads the army of incensed townspeople to set their sights on the quartet at the film’s heart.
Assassination Nation really does hit you over the head with its point – it’s about misogyny, about entitled men feeling wronged by the continued existence of autonomous young women. The mob is shown to be largely male with the lion’s share of ire aimed at Odessa Young’s Lily for engaging in an affair with an older man and seemingly ruining his snug home life. She becomes almost literally public enemy number one and very quickly – and ecstatically – Assassination Nation descends into its own form of Grand Theft Auto.
For those expecting a rousing feminist crowd-pleaser à la On the Basis of Sex, then apply elsewhere. Assassination Nation goes hard and gruesome with the violence, allowing you to feel every bone crunch, every bullet through the head. There are frequent bloody assaults, hangings, elaborate kills that wouldn’t be out of place in a Final Destination film, and it all makes for visceral, darkly compelling viewing. That’s really the paradox that Assassination Nation struggles most with.
Assassination Nation talks the talk: it’s got solid intentions and makes some excellent points about the dangerous double standards women are held to, how online culture and sexism intersects with teens, and the overlap of misogynoir and transphobia in the characters of Em and Bex, played by Abra and Hari Nef. But it’s difficult not to feel unsettled by the repeated graphic assaults on women.
Sam Levinson had the foresight to include women of colour and trans women in his core group, but that only makes it harder to see these girls brutalised. If the point of your film is exploring the ways women are consistently failed by society, then dedicating almost all of the run time to putting them in cartoonishly dangerous, nightmarish scenarios might not be the most constructive method.
Assassination Nation, fortunately, gives its leads enough moments where they have a leg-up for it not to feel like an exploitation flick. It’s a difficult balancing act, but when the film gets it just right – and it does more so than not, thankfully – everything pops.
It certainly helps that Levinson has assembled such a first-rate cast – it’s a terrific calling card for Odessa Young, while Hari Nef continues to cement herself as an actress with a lot to offer. Comparative heavyweights like Bill Skarsgård, Joel McHale and Anika Noni Rose provide characteristically strong support, too.
There’s a confidence in Assassination Nation that keeps you mesmerised. It’s a provocative film for provocative times, but one that ultimately serves more as a balm than a button-pushing irrelevance. There’s some truly gorgeous cinematography, images that really stick in your mind – stay through the credits for an absolute treat – and enough self-reflection to never feel lewd.
Under the assured guidance of Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation rises on the talents of its cast and the frequent bursts of inspired gore and timely commentary.