Assassination Nation is an electric social thriller that loses its focus amidst its derivative violence
If there is any certainty in life, it’s that the social media generation, with all its flair for aesthetics and righteous anger to boot, would give birth to a film like Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, a socially conscious and hyperbolic tour of the Internet Age’s worst qualities. Imagine if the young social justice circles of Twitter and Tumblr wrote guidelines for what a film should like. This would check off all the boxes. Much like interacting with those circles online, the result is simultaneously refreshing and maddening.
The film follows four high-school girls, led by the sharp and secretive Lily (Odessa Young, The Daughter), whose hazy lives full of partying and online obsession come tumbling down when a widespread hacking scandal reveals the collective skeletons in the closets of the entire town. With all their online secrets exposed, and many of their lives destroyed, the locals are bloodthirsty and looking for someone to blame. When Lily is framed for the hack, the town descends upon her and her friends, forcing them to fight for their lives as they descend into a rabbit hole of depraved violence.
When you get down to it, the film is basically an amalgamation of every 80s high school movie you’ve ever seen and The Purge franchise, which is an interesting enough premise. The film exists in two parts: the slow build-up to the aforementioned night of terror, and then the chaos itself. The first half of the film is electric, stylishly exploring the double standards and misogyny of modern society with a gleefully biting tone. Now, none of what the film is trying to say in this half is anything more than skin-deep exploitation of a mishmash of online activism, turning real-life issues into cannon fodder for Levinson’s aesthetics machine. But it is at least putting out radical ideas that have yet to find mainstream appeal in the film sphere, from the violence and bigotry surrounding transphobia to the inflated ego given to men by the power of the internet. As the film accelerates to its more violent antics, even the early warning signs feel authentic, from a betrayed friend taking a baseball bat to the girl who spread her nude photos (a perfectly annoying Bella Thorne) to Lily getting cornered in a locker by loser boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård, It) over her own dirty secrets. It does all of this in a way that forces the audience to examine these very real issues and evaluate how they are affecting today’s youth and beyond, tinged with an anger that feels raw, genuine, and designed to build to a catharsis that’s freeing for its activist-based target audience.
Unfortunately, the second half isn’t so sharp, with the Purge-like premise coming out of left field to provide half-baked, if admittedly entertaining, thrills and kills. It starts with a bang, an intricately staged home invasion scene that’s easily the highlight of the film. But before long, the film devolves into the lazy rambling and iconography of its Purge counterpart, complete with nonsense speeches and silly masks. While that franchise eventually learned a lesson in how to use its violent premise to effectively tackle social justice issues, the awareness goes into retrograde here. The jump from the high-school intrigue of the first half is so jarring that it makes all the chaos feel tacked on. The film seems to frequently be promising a grand finale in which the revenge fantasies of feminists everywhere will come to life, Django style. Indeed we do get a few flashes of that potential here, but ultimately the film ends out of nowhere with no depiction of the epic showdown it seems to be building to. It reveals the true weakness in Levinson’s script; he appears he wrote a very solid first half of a high school drama, and not sure where to go next, he resigned himself to pulp. That wouldn’t be so bad if he had maintained the wit and sensibility that the first half of the film contained.
While it may overstay its welcome over time, the actors remain a joy throughout. Young is an excellent lead, bringing a caustic cheekiness to her role that’s mixed with moments of genuine heartbreak and despair. She feels plucked straight out of a real world high school, seething with pain, discontentment, and fear underneath the bubblegum princess exterior. One scene in particular, in which her parents discover her online affair with a neighbor (an effectively creepy Joel McHale, Community), allows Young to display one of the most harrowing displays of regret since last year’s Lady Bird. Hari Nef (Transparent) is also excellent as sweet trans girl Bex, a character whose story line is as equally dark as Lily’s but never devoid of heart or tenacity. Nef, a trans actress herself, is a marvel and yet another testament to the fact that we need to move on from cis actors portraying these kinds of characters. It’s a relief to see the film cast an actual trans person in the role, showing that it’s at least attuned enough to recognize the fragile line it’s walking in depicting these individuals. On the flip side, however, Suki Waterhouse (The Bad Batch) and Abra aren’t given much to do as other half of the foursome, Sarah and Em. They exist almost solely to look pretty, throw out quips, and have their two minutes of bloodshed. Looking at characters like them is when you remember this film was written and directed by man.
Which brings us to Levinson himself, who despite his sometimes problematic tendencies as a screenwriter, does put in some solid work, particularly in the director’s chair. Some of the shots he sets up are obvious and unoriginal (the worst being a Lily monologue straight into the camera, America flag hanging upside down in the background), but there is also some lush, hypnotic imagery that points to a keen eye for scene composition. Style is clearly over substance in this case, but Levinson proves he’s up to the task of making that work.
Despite its strange, muddled message about violence in America and its unneeded pulpier elements, Assassination Nation is at the very least a fun and stylish film given a freshness by its dedication to social justice. That dedication may itself be based on some rather undeveloped, stereotypical ideas about what activism looks like in the modern era, but its willingness to tackle so-called hot button issues with confidence is not something to be ignored.