If you splice Mean Girls, Spring Breakers and Tarantino levels of blood together you end up with Assassination Nation. Focusing on how the suburban enclave of Salem “loses its motherfucking mind”, after a mysterious hacker divulges the town’s deepest, darkest secrets online. Sam Levinson’s film starts off with its pedal to floor and doesn’t relent for a dizzying 110 minutes.
The fatal trigger for the town is when the conservative (used here instead of Republican) town mayor is outed as a cross-dresser. The scandal! As one townsperson says, “he ran on a ticket of family values!”. He commits suicide in the subsequent press conference, with the camera placed behind his head as the splatter hits the lens. This is swiftly followed by the well-meaning if uncharacteristically hip school Principle, who is condemned for having photos of his 6-year-old daughter at bath time on his phone, which some townsfolk deem pornographic… The hacker, Er0str4tus (taken from the Ancient Greek, Herostratus, who torched The Temple of Artemis), is determined to wreak havoc on the town and its people. This is particularly true for high schooler Lily Coulson (Odessa Young), the film’s protagonist, whose secret sexting affair with an older man, known only as Daddy for most of the film, is revealed for all to see. She has to face the consequence of the town collectively slut shaming her and for some to actively feel they can inflict harm upon her. Lily’s closest friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are all victims of the leak too and their combined stories, to a certain extent, add up to a satisfying whole.
Assassination Nation is an aggressive high-school movie and its politics and views are pretty on the nose, firing off ideas with machine gun regularity but to the film’s credit more of the ideas hit than miss. The opening images are of a town constrained by conservatism and closed minds but by the end every sensibility that this town once hold dear has been broken and left crushed on the floor. Levinson’s script cares about teenagers and values their opinions, sidestepping the normal pitfalls of a high school movie creating characters of what the writer thinks a teenager is rather than what they are. The dialogue feels relatable and accurate including Lily’s impassioned speech to her Principal on how her life drawings aren’t pornographic but actually reflecting real life in a way that she understands it and it’s hard to disagree with her statements despite understanding the Principles pragmatism.
Assassination Nation reflects the fragmented reality of today’s online culture with split screens, text message chains and viral videos filling the screen in nearly every scene. The effect is bludgeoning but not alienating. The idea of how a hack of this nature could be the worst thing ever for a lot of people is clear to see but it is those who are shown to be from an analog world (the adults)who are the ones struggling to deal with the aftermath. Their protective bubbles have been burst and a lot of them have literally been caught with their pants down.
Who caused the outbreak and the subsequent hunt is the strand holding the film together. Lily is blamed for the outbreak and in a slightly jarring tonal shift that sees the film become a riff on The Purge franchise, she gets hunted down by a violent bunch of gun-wielding maniacs. This will be the most problematic part of the film for some as it offers the idea that some people with guns are in fact good, but it succeeds in opening up and skewering our society’s seeping wound that is toxic masculinity. As the action descends in to chaos with more blood than a night at Carrie’s and an attempted lynching, the film stumbles a little under its own weight with the final reveal feeling underwhelming and slightlyobvious to work out.
The film is deliberately told with a certain level of shallowness and a high level of hyperactivity and in truthwhen you have a film that so clearly indicts and revels in the excesses of modern society, it is hard to not see it as a success. After all the film takes on the current state of emboldened male outrage and shows the misogynistic moaning for what it is and similarly highlights the fact that so many men can no longer run from the comfort of the oppressive forces they’ve upheldfor so long. It is also a film that is a middle finger to all the “fragile male egos” with their noses out of joint atnecessary societal change, be they ordinary, everyday people or Presidents. The film is clear about who in society is the most down trodden, the first to be accused and not believed when innocence is sought and those who are used as a scapegoat for male ills. As Lily says: “Don’t take your hate out on me. I just got here.”