Assassination Nation works well both as a stylish thriller with tense, horrific moments and as a feminist parable for the modern social media age.
Assassination Nation is the new thriller/horror/action comedy from writer-director Sam Levinson that has been building buzz since its initial premiere in January at the annual Sundance Film Festival. In the vein of James DeMonaco and Blumhouse's The Purge movie series, Assassination Nation delves into the idea of what would happen if a quintessentially American town descended into anarchy - to bloody, violent effect. However, Assassination Nation also weaves in themes relevant to the digital era, using a massive data hack to set the events of the film in motion and allow the movie to comment on what people can hide behind the mask of perceived privacy. Assassination Nation works well both as a stylish thriller with tense, horrific moments and as a feminist parable for the modern social media age.
Assassination Nation follows Salem high school student Lily Colson (Odessa Young) and her three best friends Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), who are relatively typical American teenagers. They talk about boys - particularly Lily's boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård) - they party, spend time posting on social media and they each have secrets of their own. In fact, Lily is secretly sexting a man who she refers to as "Daddy", and who turns out to be Nick (Joel McHale), the father of a girl she used to babysit. However, when Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) is hacked and his secrets posted online, then shared with the entire Salem high school community, it kicks off a string of events that lead to a bloody confrontation.
Though Mayor Bartlett is the first person to be hacked, he's not the last, with high school Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) the next to be targeted. Then, as the police are floundering to discover who might be behind the hacks, the personal data of half of Salem is dumped online, and the information triggers a number of violent attacks. For her part, Lily's secrets are also exposed by way of Nick's data being hacked and released online, and she becomes the target of misogynistic hatred. On one particular night following the hack, Salem decides to get justice for themselves and seek out the person responsible for the hacks, causing the town to devolve into lawless chaos. As a result, Lily will have to stick close to her friends if they want to survive the night.
Assassination Nation is the second film written and directed by Levinson following 2011's Another Happy Day. But whereas that movie dealt with the drama and comedy that comes along with a family weekend, Assassination Nation offers an updated tale of the Salem Witch Trials, examining the anger and hatred that can be aimed at young women when they don't conform to society's standards of how they should carry themselves. Taking it further, Assassination Nation also showcases the same hatred that's directed at those who don't fit society's standards in other ways through Mayor Bartlett - whose data hack reveals him to be a closeted gay man - and Principal Turrell, a black man working in Salem who comes from a less privileged town. Altogether, Levinson has put together a scathing commentary about how those who are "other" than what's considered the norm can be targeted, hated, abused and even killed by those who claim to be upstanding moral Americans.
But, while Assassination Nation is undoubtedly a social commentary, it also works exceptionally well as a tense thriller, building up to a bloody third act. Levinson effectively showcases the spread of digital information, and the way folks are quick to react, dogpiling on one another to have something to say - to make sure they say the right things - all while quietly fearing the same will happen to them. The tension in Salem tangibly builds over the course of the movie, with the angry, hateful population hiding behind masks while the secrets of those who are deemed "other" and/or morally bankrupt are exposed. It all reaches a horrific conclusion in the third act, which delivers the gorey, bloody violence fans of the genre would expect. But even still, the commentary of Assassination Nation is a constant underlying theme and the two aspects come to a head in a climactic scene that may offer some thrills, but truthfully pays off more thematically than with action.
The four girls at the center of Assassination Nation get in on the bloody action of the movie in the third act, which is around the time it becomes clear that aside from Lily and Bex, the movie isn't quite so concerned with character arcs or developing most of its characters beyond the two-dimensional. Lily is the most well developed character of the film - with Bex a distant, albeit compelling second thanks to Nef's performance - and Young shoulders that responsibility well. Much of Assassination Nation is narrated by a voiceover from Young and the way it often highlights a disparity between Lily's thoughts and Lily's actions works to not only showcase who this teen girl is meant to be, but how who she presents herself as isn't necessarily who she is.
However, even if viewers know Lily best of all the characters, she's still not necessarily a character so much as an idea. Like most of the people in Assassination Nation, they're ideas rather than characters, avatars audiences are meant to see themselves in. Lily feels like an underdeveloped character because she's meant to be a relatively blank canvas for the viewer to imprint upon and relate to so that they can enter the story through Lily's eyes. Whether the viewer is actually able to see through Lily's eyes is up to them, but Levinson encourages each member of the audience to experience the events of Assassination Nation through this young woman - and young women and those who have experienced hatred or abuse will likely see their experiences reflected on screen, while others may be uncomfortable with what they see.
Altogether, Assassination Nation is a thought-provoking update on the Salem Witch Trials with a modern spin, showcasing how society still views women as the enemy and that hatred can be easily directed and fueled through the internet. At times, Levinson takes the modern twist a little eye-rollingly far - as with the opening sequence featuring a series of trigger warnings (a sequence from the Assassination Nation trailers that felt like a cheap marketing gimmick even then and in the movie itself comes off as if the filmmaker doesn't understand the youth of today or trigger warnings themselves). Still, the stylistic thrills and social commentary of Assassination Nation reels viewers back in for a movie that's entertaining as hell. It may not be for everyone - especially with its R rating - but Assassination Nation gets certain aspects of life for modern women so incredibly right and delivers a fun thriller to boot sot that it's definitely worth checking out.
Assassination Nation is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 110 minutes and is rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use - all involving teens.
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- Assassination Nation (2018) release date: Sep 21, 2018