Like few other films in recent memory, Assassination Nation at least warns you of what you’ve signed up for. Odessa Young’s opening narration and director Sam Levinson’s quick-cut montage straight-up tells/shows us there’s going to be, to name a few: underage sex, rape, homophobia, violence, murder, and toxic masculinity. I don’t know if this opening was always a part of the equation or if it was added after the film premiered at Sundance earlier this year. But it’s there now and serves as a blunt statement of purpose for a movie which seems born of minds who’ve lost all patience for subtlety and feel the world needs a good kick in the ass.
To put it another way: When Trump won, a record number of women decided to run for office. Levinson and a small army of producers made Assassination Nation instead, a film which uses grindhouse and horror imagery to speak to the ongoing gender wars in America.
The story sees small, conservative Salem, so picked for its obvious witch hunt association, turned toward chaos and mob mentality when an unknown hacker releases the internet and cell phone histories for half of the people in town. Within a week, the place is a veritable powder keg needing just the smallest of sparks to finally explode. When that happens, most of the aggrieved men in town focus their thirst for vengeance on four falsely accused high school girls – Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Em (Abra), and Bex (Hari Nef, a trans character played by a trans woman).
Their parents are no help.
The entirely male cops are actually leading the freakin’ mob.
And just about every guy they thought they could trust are now secretly their enemies.
The girls, sadly, are on their own. We know from the first, very Spring Breakers-esque half of the film that these are four sexually active and not always overly empathetic girls. Lily, in particularly, turns out to have been carrying out a sexting affair with a married man in town. But, we also know they didn’t perform the hack nor do they deserve any of the violence which comes crashing down on them. Before long, though, they are defending themselves like something out of Kill Bill.
Overall, it’s an aggressively unsubtle movie – from setting the digital witch hunt action in Salem to the sledgehammer juxtaposition of toxic masculinity and hypocrisy framed in front of the American flag – filled with plenty of-the-moment rage. It’s like an arthouse Purge that waits much longer to get to its fetishistic violence. The viewing experience is tantamount to being shouted at through a bullhorn coupled with a director often excitedly announcing, “Wait. This is so cool. Look what I can do with split-screens!” But, damn, the talent on display is impressive.
This film features one of the best Steadicam long take sequences I’ve ever seen. It happens when the enraged males of the town first descent upon Lily, Sarah, and Box at Em’s two-story, glass window-adorned house under the cover of night. The camera, peering through the windows from outside, lifts and falls, tracking the movement of each girl inside the house while also glimpsing the mounting threat they are completely unaware of. Masked men repeatedly pop into frame out of nowhere, taking their position outside windows or glass doors, taking their positions in their coordinated attack. Even once the home invasion occurs, though, we stay inside the simulated long take (there are plenty of invisible cuts), never letting up on the tension.
It is as technically masterful a sequence as I’ve seen in any movie this year. The film quickly loses its taste for such flourishes and goes straight for the jugular, eventually giving us Lily declaring war on men after she’s murdered a row of bromeisters and stands in front of an American flag. Given the sorry state of affairs in 2018, I can’t blame her. Plus, hey, the film tells you exactly what you’re in for right away.
Assassination Nation bombed at the box office this weekend. Here’s what the distributor had to say about that:
“Sam Levinson has created a bold, visionary and ultimately cathartic response to the dumpster fire that is 2018. We’re admittedly disappointed more people didn’t come out this weekend, but those that did were loud and overwhelmingly positive. It’s going to take more time for Assassination Nation to find its audience,’ says Neon chief Tom Quinn.