Review: Assassination Nation
Upon seeing the trailer for Assassination Nation, I’ll admit that I was skeptical about the film. This was not just because it seemed to echo The Purge a bit too loudly, but rather because it seemed to languish in its own sense of edgy youthful recklessness. In a self-righteous way, these characters were going to tell me what the world was like. Luckily, this is much more pervasive in the trailer than in the film, though elements of it are there through the plot. Narrated by the main character, Lily (Odessa Young), we follow her and her friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) as she chronicles their somewhat debauched high school existence in the town of Salem. There is little focus on the leads dealing with “mean girls” as it so often happens in teen dramas, rather the queen bee Reagan (Bella Thorne) is largely unconcerned with them and engages them in casual conversations when she pleases. One of the reasons for this is that the film is not so much a critique of online culture, but rather the boundary between what we show to the world and what we do privately online. The central question of the movie is, what would happen if this boundary were eradicated? The film’s main answer is that the rampant unregulated misogyny that occurs in online spaces would leak out into the real world, with men regressing to the point where women are threatened as much in real life as they are online.
At the beginning of the film, though no distinction is made as to whether Lily and her friends are the most popular members of school, it’s clear that they enjoy partying, drinking, and largely doing whatever they please. A highlight of the film is that these characters aren’t treated with disdain because of this, rather the movie points out several times the hypocrisy of those that do carry this attitude. It turns out that Lily is actually very bright, contrary to what most would (misogynistically) see at first glance. This is highlighted in an important scene where she is called to the principal’s office and scolded for submitting her journal of drawings of girls who took nude selfies on instagram to her art class. She articulately argues for the validity of her work, saying that it’s not crass because the inherent meaning has to do with the relationship between women and their bodies. There is the way in which women look nude naturally, and the way that they have to pose and fix the light in order to look “flawless” nude. What does this say when women choose to construct altered versions of their bodies for an online audience? Even though this is presciently argued, the principal still forces Lily to revoke the assignment.
Much of this (the lax attitude, striving to depict “real teen life”, even the journal full of nudity) is also present in 2017’s Flower, but where that movie waded in its “realness” to the point where any sort of theme was nonexistent, Assassination Nation is very clear on its theme from the start. The first half of the movie is actually pretty compelling because of this. The tension starts to rise when a local politician gets hacked and all of his online activities are leaked to the public, some of which sully his reputation so bad that he ends his life by firing a gun in his mouth on stage. This rapid shift from thematic subtleties to shocking acts of violence is something that happens throughout the film and it often strikes one as more random than stylistic. Sure, there is blood and gore, but it’s often more for shock value than it is for the movie’s theme or plot.
Soon after, more and more people start getting hacked and it doesn’t take long before half the people of Salem have their private information leaked online. After this point, the movie largely turns into a gore fest, and paradoxically becomes much more boring because of it. Ultimately, Lily becomes the victim of sexual assault because of these hacks and later the town ends up blaming her for them. Soon there is a witch hunt (“Salem”, get it? haha) composed purely of men who are after Lily and her friends. After Lily & co. become armed they march down the street in matching red jackets, and what is supposed to make the members of the audience flame with rage at the patriarchy actually just ends up feeling quite dull. A good while into this section of the movie my friend turned to me and asked, “do you want to go?”
This is not all to say that this movie does not do some things well. In terms of casting, it is refreshing to see a trans woman play a trans woman and Hari Nef does a great job of making her character easily one of the most compelling in the film. As previously mentioned, the movie starts out with a lot of promise and the scenes where Lily is “explaining the world” to us are largely less annoying because they’re usually accompanied with the screen split to show multiple perspectives at once, distracting the viewer. Yet ultimately this is a case where the director played too heavily with style to keep up with the substance in the first half. Especially in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearing, if you’re looking to see some pure female rage unleashed on screen, by all means go and see this movie. But know that what is done here has been done better and with the depth to back it up.