In the early moments of this film, the narrator rattles off a warning list of upcoming “Triggers” which includes brief visual snippets. At least one person got up and left. They wouldn’t be the last before the film ended.
In the town of Salem (A great choice, if a bit on the nose), a rogue hacker known as Er0Str4tus has begun leaking individual’s personal data from their cell phone. Not just text messages, but absolutely everything, including photos, videos, and web history. The first target is a local politician who leads a secret homosexual fetish life, which is especially damning since he ran on a strict anti-LGBT platform. The town feels betrayed and reacts in a variety of ways. Some mock and ridicule him, others feel sorry for what was likely a very lonely life, others threaten him. The hacker’s next attack is against the beloved high school principal. By all accounts, he was a good father, husband, and teacher. Unfortunately, people tend to latch onto the salacious more than the positive. Some of the private discussions with his wife taken out of context paint him in a negative light. Then there are the naked photos of his daughter when she was very young. Are they innocent child photos? Or was she just a bit too old for them to still be considered socially acceptable?
The script takes its time introducing these concepts to the audience. Where would you draw the line on such a photo? At what age is it not acceptable? Why do you feel that way? Would you stand up for what you believed or join the mob mentality? Or is your belief part of the mob mentality? We see these issues discussed through the eyes of the four lead characters. Lily (Odessa Young) is the narrator, a young woman struggling to define love in her life. Are boys her age or older men better? Does the extra maturity mean they care for her more or just have more experience manipulating her? Her three other, very opinionated friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), are going through similar issues that are still uniquely their own. All of them are bound together under an oppression that is felt not just from the older generation, nor just through men, but one that seems to permeate our current society. Our country was founded on strict Puritan beliefs, and these outdated concepts still run dangerously deep within many people, even if they themselves don’t abide by them. What would happen if all the personal secrets of an entire town were suddenly unleashed, and everyone’s hypocrisy was revealed? “Assassination Nation” takes an over the top stab at what chaos could possibly ensue. As nearly everyone’s information is leaked, the citizens all turn on one another, with blame and violence quickly escalating. As every great businessman and politician knows, when criticism is approaching, redirect! Find someone else to take the blame! The reactions and behaviors of all the characters in this film, although exaggerated, are quite human. Soon this quartet of progressive minded young women are the target of the town’s animosity.
This movie has a lot to say and writer/director Sam Levinson conveys its messages through music video style cinematography laid over a classic horror film framework. Bright colors, unusual camera angles, split screens, and one very impressive long take visually punch up this slightly comedic, millennial’s satire. I often cringe at the use of split screens, but after my initial kneejerk reaction, I realized they were being used for a very specific reason. The entire film is about the irony of humanity, and the two(?) split-screen sequences were perfectly showcasing that. One takes place at a party, where images of the girls having fun, or putting for a positive persona, were contrasted with moments of truth and sadness. Another powerful sequence has Lily telling us about her current boyfriend, who was also her first love. “He was the first man that made me feel safe to be myself” is intercut with him debasing her because of his own insecurities. We see smiles contrasted with self-loathing insults. It’s powerful stuff. The violence, bloody and otherwise, is also quite powerful and makes segments of the film quite difficult to watch, even for a seasoned critic. Unfortunately, the main problem with this film is its excesses. Too much of any ingredient can dilute your final product. The movie runs a bit too long, and although I appreciate the build-up to the violence, it takes a little too long to get there. An edgy film has no room for a restless audience. And even worse, the ending of the movie is completely misguided. Few things in cinema are more rewarding than seeing righteous vengeance exacted upon the villains, especially when it’s strong women dolling out said justice, and especially when their vengeance isn’t fueled by rape. (A lazy fallback in far too many “feminist” films.) But the effort to make these seen “powerful” and “cool”, completely backfire. In a film of exciting camera work and gimmicks, it’s a shockingly poorly edited sequence. At the moment these characters are supposed to look their strongest, they look absolutely silly for the only time in the movie, and it completely deflates the crescendo. Further fouling up the ending is a 4th wall breaking monologue that Lily doles out on the audiences in melodramatic gobs. If you have a powerful message, spelling it out to the audience at the end will only weaken it. If you don’t trust your film to deliver the message, then you shouldn’t be making films. And if you don’t trust the audience to get the message, then they are beyond hope anyway. I was also very disappointing that the ending took the time to spell out who the hacker really was. For once, a movie provided all the clues you needed to deduce who it was, and yet it still spoon fed the answer. It’s unnessary and likely killed hours of fun post-movie-debates.
“Assassination Nation” is certainly not for everyone, but I wish everyone could learn something from its message. So much of it seems very over the top, but we’re startling close to it becoming reality. With so much of our personal life not only being transferred digitally but permantly stored online by major companies, we’re living in an era that was pure science fiction a couple decades ago. The nation’s atmosphere feels tense with heightened levels of racism, misogyny, and religious intolerance. Are we going to get better or worse? And will that be before or after every aspect of our lives are splayed out for public consumption? It wasn’t that long ago that a town named Salem really did rise up and align itself with a group of women in the name of morality.