“My name is Lily Colson, and this is the story about how my town, Salem, lost its motherfucking mind.”
So opens Assassination Nation, a stylistic, insane take on America’s toxic culture and stigmas, taken to their most extreme. In the midst of the powerful #MeToo movement, this film arrives as a call to action for the abused and the marginalized. That call to action is to, quite literally, take up arms, fight back against the oppressors, and burn the whole motherfucker down, and Assassination Nation hypes you up to want to do just that.
Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), are a group of high schoolers in the small town of Salem. In Salem, everyone knows each other, so you would assume there aren’t many well kept secrets. Enter an anonymous hacker, who methodically begins leaking every bit of personal information (such as emails, search history, photos, and text messages) of Salem townsfolk onto the internet for all to see. They go after the mayor, the school principal, and more, leading to the quiet town slowly turning against each other as everyone’s dirty laundry gets aired out. Lives are upended, and Salem descends into almost total anarchy.
Assassination Nation is a film that could only truly exist and be effective in the world of today. The unquestionable fact that nothing is really private in the digital age is put on full display, as is the unspoken truth that everyone has something to hide. These modern fears are played on to tremendous effect (you’ll definitely feel like cleaning out your hard drive after leaving the theater), and writer / director Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day) portrays life in 2018, especially as told through the eyes of high school girls, brilliantly, honestly, and skillfully.
On a technical level, Assassination Nation is something to marvel at. Cinematographer Marcell Rév (Paterno, Jupiter’s Moon) cranks his unique style up to 11, masterfully filling the runtime with tons of impressive, continuous tracking shots and gorgeous frames that could fill up a week of posts on One Perfect Shot. The first act of the film, depicting the partying lives of our main group of girls, eloquently captures the dreamlike quality of what parties truly feel like when you’re young, with so much going on at once (several scenes use a split screen to see several events happening at the same time) and everything almost feeling like a blur. There’s a downright incredible sequence involving the camera going through every room of Em’s house as she attempts to beef up security (while masked vandals surround the home) that refuses to cut for what feels like a solid ten minutes straight as horror unfolds.
By the time the second half of the film rolls in, where half the town has had every dirty little secret of theirs exposed, the film goes into full Purge mode. Masked rioters and murderers take to the streets demanding justice, answers, and sowing chaos. And this is where the film truly gets to the point of what it is it wants to show you. Besides being expertly thrilling and suspenseful, Assassination Nation is a film with something to say about the state of the nation. The anarchists, draped in American flags and decked out with every gun they can carry, are hypocrites to the highest extent. Every one of them is an angry male who has fallen victim to the evils of toxic masculinity, eager to murder those that they deem “sluts”, “whores”, and “homewreckers”. Not one of them can see themselves as the oppressor or the assailant, choosing instead to blame their victims and take out their self-hatred on the already-downtrodden.
Assassination Nation feels incredibly empowering, no matter who you are or what you identify as. It stirs you to want to take back control of your life and exact revenge on those who have wronged you. Lily has been in a relationship with an older man (Joel McHale, who should always play villains) with a wife and children, who has groomed her into sending him dirty texts and photos. Bex is trans who is forced to keep her relationship with the school’s star football player a secret. When these secrets are exposed, the two of them are seen as the ones who have sinned – the ones who deserve to be shamed and punished. The film refuses to shy away from the most dangerous and terrifying elements of just how bad a misogynistic and homophobic society can get, and the scenes depicting provocative situations such as attempted rape, torture, and gore feel earned and effecting rather than simply being there for the sake of shock value (the film even starts with a list of trigger warnings).
The four girls are a strong group of friends and easy to root for, and the performances of the core cast are definitely noteworthy. Lily and Bex are the two who take center stage, and Odessa Young (High Life, Sweet Virginia, Looking for Grace) and Hari Nef (Transparent, You) put in tremendous work as their respective characters. They are confident yet vulnerable, open yet reserved, but above all, deeply relatable. Young has a couple of emotional scenes that perfectly portray what it’s like to go through trauma and have mental breakdowns as a teenager, and you’d be lying if you said you’ve never acted in the exact same ways. Bex, accepted and embraced by her friends and tolerated by everyone else (until she’s not), holds the key to Assassination Nation’s success, giving audiences a wonderful representation of a trans character whose arc has little to do with her identity.
As the girls begin to fight back against the toxic and unjust society that they’ve lived in their whole lives (and the leaked information only amplified rather than created), the film becomes a full-tilt revenge fantasy. They wreak vengeance on the sexist hypocrites who wish to erase and bury them, and you’d be hard pressed to not want to do the same in your life, preferably in a less violent way, of course. Assassination Nation is an almost beautiful and shocking tale of what it means to live in a world where everything seeks to put you down and shame you for who you choose to be, and how that can push you to take action against those who wish to maintain the status quo. “We are good people!” scream the rapists, sexual harassers, slut-shaming, homophobic men. This tale of four fed-up women who take matters into their own hands exists to show them that they’re not, and that their time is, finally, up.
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Part cyber thriller, horror, and revenge fantasy, Assassination Nation is an empowering film that slowly and deliberately cranks up the excitement until it peaks at an insane, yet enticing level.
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