London Film Festival 2018 First Look Review – Assassination Nation
Set in the town of Salem, Assassination Nation is a dystopian fantasy about the consequences for four high school girls when their town goes into meltdown, after half of its residents have their text messages and emails hacked and released on to the internet. Because everything is terrible now, we don’t have to look far […]
Set in the town of Salem, Assassination Nation is a dystopian fantasy about the consequences for four high school girls when their town goes into meltdown, after half of its residents have their text messages and emails hacked and released on to the internet.
Because everything is terrible now, we don’t have to look far into fantasy for our dystopian nightmares. The hacking a few years ago of private celebrity photos and the monitoring of prominent people’s phone messages by, among others, the News of the World served notice that things we believed (and hoped) were private could very easily not be if someone wanted to take some time and effort. Assassination Nation merely imagines – and hopefully overestimates – the consequences of this happening on a grand scale in a concentrated area.
The basic idea here is something like a radically feminist female revenge movie take on The Purge, as the world turns on 18 year old Lili (Odessa Young) and her girlfriends when it’s claimed that Lili is responsible for the massive information leak. Assassination Nation’s styling is lurid. Dressing political content in exploitation clothing is hardly new, but writer/director Sam Levinson’s film never feels entirely honest. The commentary is incredibly on the nose at times, right down to the town being named Salem. Shots involving the American flag (guns arranged across one, Lili using one as a mask when she gets tooled up for the final showdown, etc) drip with so much irony that you can almost feel Levinson nudging you and saying “get it?” For the record, yes, I do. I’ve no doubt that the messages, from the inclusivity of the casting to the warnings about the masks we wear online and America’s anger and its relationship with weapons are earnestly meant, it’s just that they’re delivered like a scolding from a friend trying to show you how right on they are. I can’t help but wonder how differently the film would play if Levinson had a female co-writer.
What Levinson does know is how to craft a memorable image. An early sequence that cross cuts events at a party in a three way vertical split screen is especially striking, as is the sequence of Grace (Maude Apatow, breaking out of small roles in her Dad’s films) taking a baseball bat to the person who leaked her intimate selfies. The slick stylisation largely works, as do many moments when Levinson sets the box of tricks down and just goes for a point or a joke (or best of all both, as in a great early scene when Lili defends her explicit artwork to the school’s principal).
And yet, there was always something that just felt off to me. The feeling that the film is desperately trying to have its cake and eat it begins early, as it opens with a list of trigger warnings, from Rape (attempted) to Male Gaze to Gore. It’s a joke, and a fairly amusing one in the moment, but it’s also an attempt at a get out of jail free card and a bit of a cheat, because it seems like the film trying to dodge responsibility for its commentary. That’s why it never feels totally honest. Similarly, while the film has a diverse group of young women at its centre, only Lili and Bex (transgender actress and model Hari Nef) have anything approaching a personality or a developed storyline of their own. Bex is by far the most interesting character, with Nef giving the film’s standout performance and putting across the painful feelings of the quarterback she’s in love with wanting to hook up with her, but not otherwise acknowledging her.
Assassination Nation is fun in the moment. A lot of its gags land, the imagery is cool and stylish and it does at least raise some relevant topics in some provocative ways. In it’sway I don’t doubt that it’s a sincere film. On the other hand, it doesn’t add up to much on closer examination. It often works against the points it’s trying to make and is far from as radical as it believes it is.
Assassination Nation screens as LFF’s Cult Gala on Friday 19th, Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st of October.