Fear not, ye sensitive viewers who have stumbled into writer-director Sam Levinson’s story of four young women who go from shamed, blamed, framed victims to avenging angels: You’ll get a brief roll-call montage of “trigger warning” alerts before the insanity kicks in. Part PSA and part sneering at the P.C. brigade, this introductory bit of ballyhoo proudly ticks off the potentially traumatizing elements you’re about to witness, including (but not limited to): bullying, classism, toxic masculinity, transphobia, guns, nationalism, racism, murder, the Male Gaze, rape (attempted), swearing, torture, violence, gore and fragile male egos.
It’s a fine, and completely 100-percent accurate list, to which we’d also add: overuse of social media as a signifier of Western Civilization’s decline, way too many colored gels, nihilism chic, exploitation-spoiltation, flagrant abuse of split screens, Susan Sontag quotes and upspeak, a serious thirstiness for relevance and a penchant for mistaking snark for satire. These elements of Assassination Nation might be even more offensive than the ones the film ticks off in its pre-credits intro — this is not a safe space for folks allergic to self-regarding movies in which an aesthetic grab-bag is meant to double for a stylistic vision and all-caps screaming is supposed to translate as a voice. Levinson has given us an angry movie for angry times, which doesn’t necessarily make it a clever or coherent commentary on how American hypocrisy leads to American carnage. Or even, for that matter, a halfway decent slab of pumped-up pulp friction.
“This is the story of how my town lost its motherfucking mind,” our narrator, the 18-year-old Lily (Odessa Young), tells us from the start; her everyburb U.S.A is named Salem, the first of many are-you-getting-it hammer blows to the head. Along with her three best friends — Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Em (the mono-monikered Abra) and Bex (transgender actor Hari Nef) — this quartet spend their days drinking, smoking, sexting, sending out semi-nude pics to someone named “Daddy,” hooking up with bad boyfriends and worse backwards-baseball-capped bros … your usual teen shenanigans. Then, someone hacks the mayor’s computer, resulting in a press conference that ends with a bullet. (It’s naturally turned into viral-meme instantly.)
Soon, the school principal (Colman Domingo) sees his texts, private emails, browser history, etc. go public as well. The hits keep on coming. Quicker than you can say, “Oh cool, I’ve seen Le Corbeau on FilmStruck too!”, everybody’s dirty secrets have hit the Internet and everyone is a suspect. Most folks, however, think Lily’s the culprit. All the more convenient to unleash a torrent of rancid misogyny, mob violence, boiling-over homophobia and hate crimes under the guise of paranoid national(ist) pride. Will there be direct quotes from Trump speeches? Are folks gonna slap on some Purge-lite creepy masks? Will all of the local dudes, from the chest-bumping jocks to the Nice Dad Who Lives Across the Street (Joel McHale), turn into a #YesAllMen militia of gun-toting rapists at the first sign of social breakdown? Are you too busy texting eyeroll emojis right now to even consider these questions?
Assassination Nation‘s first half hits all the usual Heathers notes, with characters slinging slang and caustic, sarcastic asides (“My iPhoto looks like a snuff film”) in the name of selling a Hot Topic sense of subversion. It wouldn’t be the first movie to flirt with sex-and-violence sensationalism to get everyone hot and bothered while doling out mixed messages — sure, why not have your characters go on about being oversexualized as young women at the same time you’re actively objectifying them — but it may be the one most likely to think such things somehow count as a cake-and-ogle-it-too critique. Conversations about TMI in the Twitter age, how civilization can turn into savagery with just a single 2GB upload and why white male rage is less an epidemic than a biological plague are all wrapped up in bright neon packages and pseudo-profunditities, killing time between toxic 4chan-style outbursts. You’re reminded that righteous trolling is still trolling.
Then comes the second half, at which point the film embraces its exploitation-cinema destiny and pivots into Faster, Pussycat! LOL! LOL! As intruders surround the house where Lily, Sarah, Em and Bex are watching a Japanese Female Scorpion entry (deep-cut meta film-nerd reference: add 5 points) and slowly infiltrate the place, we’re treated to a siege film with Slasher-flick P.O.V. shots and upside-down camera flips. This is where Levinson proves that he’s got chops — the shoot-outs and room-to-room stalking are choreographed with brutal precision and a nice sense of how to use space to sustain tension. It’s a momentary bright spot before some role reversals arm all four of the women, the bloodbath begins in earnest and you can’t tell whether the filmmaker is ripping off every female-revenge film he’s ever seen or just the second-hand ones that he read about in a Tarantino interview once.
Yes, there is a P–sy-Grabs-Back catharsis in watching these four young women dish out payback to douchebags, especially in a week full of Kavanaugh-enabling news; you no longer have to wonder whether we’ll ever see a transgender action hero, because Nef gives you one in all her blood-splattered, vengeful glory. (Representation matters.) Yet so much of this feature-length screed rings false, especially when it attempts to serve up a rallying cry at the end that it hasn’t really earned. Stuck in a default mode of inchoate rage, it just ends up spewing for its own sake, a patchwork of provocation tries to pass itself as a sexed-up but serious state-of-our-nation’s-degeneration commentary. “I did it for the LOLs,” the eventual culprit admits when asked about the devastating data dump. Assassination Nation thinks its a fuck-you punchline. It’s actually the film’s most honest admission — its one true self-own.