Not quite softcore exploitation horror but not quite a rallying feminist cry either, Sam Levinson’s femme-fatale-led piece fails to pull out all the stops as promised – mostly because it doesn’t seem to know where the stops are in the first place.
Assassination Nation is an anomaly, right off the bat. It’s a film about what it means to be a teenage girl growing up in this day and age, written by a 33-year-old white man. It’s a film that doesn’t quite become what it claims to hate by the end of it, but comes very close to purporting the multiple trigger warnings that it so sarcastically declares in its first five minutes. It’s a film that wants to be a female-empowering satirical condemnation of toxic masculinity, the fragility of the male ego, and patriarchal rape culture, but attempts to convey these messages through the relentless onscreen abuse and torture of its four female protagonists. It is basically Sam Levinson’s declaration that he is “pretty fly for a white guy”, hashtag Not All Men, hashtag Him For Her, hashtag This Is What A Feminist Looks Like. And, expected, it really doesn’t quite ring true.
Following the salacious text-ploits of high school it-girls Lily, Bex, Em, and Sarah, the first half of Assassination Nation plays out like an exponentially darker Ingrid Goes West. Sex, parties, and sending nudes to older men referred to only as “Daddy” – Lily and her squad live out their lives onscreen like every single cliché about popular teenage girls all rolled into one, easy-to-consume package for the Tumblr generation. But the fun and games end pretty quickly as an anonymous hacker leaks the town’s data (and dirty secrets) for the world to see, and Lily is incriminated without much evidence or due diligence, resulting in a literal witch hunt for her and her friends that sees the town of Salem explode into a Purge-esque nightmare of guns, masks, and mob violence.
Perhaps the one thing that stands out the most about Assassination Nation is its complete and utter lack of subtlety – you would easily be forgiven for coming out of a screening thinking that ‘subtlety’ isn’t even a word in Sam Levinson’s vocabulary. Everything in Assassination Nation goes balls-to-the-wall from the get-go, from the girl gang’s debauched antics at various house parties to the multiple expository speeches that the men of Salem make as justification for their quest to brutally murder four teenage girls. Even when the film makes its influences clear, it does so in the most obnoxiously brash way – a bloody bathroom scene (which is admittedly one of the film’s better moments) is a visual dead ringer for the Sissy Spacek Carrie, the masked mob rallying in Salem look like they could have been lifted straight out of the Purge movies, and as the final act draws nearer, a scene from Alleycat Rock: Female Boss plays out in its entirety as explanation for the girls’ own red coats.
“This is a modern retelling of the Salem witch trials! Women are treated unfairly!” screams the film, as Lily is violently manhandled onscreen by three high school boys looking for an identifying birthmark on her back. It’s through scenes like this that Assassination Nation constantly veers very, very close to becoming a proponent of everything it claims to hate – including, notably enough, a very ham-handed attempt at condemning transphobia by depicting the extremely drawn-out almost-lynching of a transgender woman. The film spends its 110-minute runtime trying to make up its mind about whether it wants to be a fun, trashy exploitation horror flick or a slightly more serious social satire, and by the time it finally ends on a disappointingly anticlimactic note, it has ultimately gone nowhere at all.
It doesn’t help that the foursome at the heart of Assassination Nation are written so poorly that even the cast’s best efforts cannot redeem the film. Odessa Young undoubtedly steals the show as Lily – her voiceovers filled with just the right mix of millennial malaise and underhanded venom; her onscreen presence both vulnerable and defiantly unapologetic. Hari Nef comes a close second as Bex, a transgender woman whose life within her comforting cool-girl bubble hides her ostracisation from the rest of the school. But Levinson’s screenplay doesn’t give them much else to work with beyond cardboard cut-out it-girl tropes, and their performance alone cannot hide the fact that the posse aren’t allowed any character development whatsoever over the course of the movie. Instead they remain boring, occasionally irritating stereotypes; both difficult to root for and yet easy to empathise with as they are beaten down again and again onscreen, merely for being who they are.
To say Assassination Nation is completely directionless would be an overstatement, but it is fairly clear that the film cannot decide what it wants to be at all, in the same way that its eighteen-year-old characters would probably be hard-pressed deciding what they want to major in at college. As a result, it flops between feeling either highly contrived or simply uninteresting; neither Kill Bill nor Planet Terror. The only substantial reason I’d recommend this movie to someone is for Marcell Rév’s excellent cinematography; his hued lighting and genius tracking shots making the film a visual treat. Or, you could just go see it because Bella Thorne gets her head smashed in by Judd Apatow’s daughter onscreen. Given the movie’s entire schtick, I’d say the latter would probably be more convincing.