If you’re at all concerned about what a digital data leak could do to your reputation, you better hold on tight during Assassination Nation. It’s a searing examination of social behavior (online and off), hypocrisy, sexualization, the modern mob mentality and much more. While enthralling and, by the end, truly empowering, writer-director Sam Levinson bites off more than he can chew for the film’s full runtime resulting in a messy plot progression and worthwhile concepts that don’t get the necessary screen time to truly seep in and make a meaningful impression.
The movie takes place in the town of Salem and puts the spotlight on four best friends – Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra). Life mainly consists of school, partying and hang time, but things spiral completely out of control when a hacker starts sharing some very personal digital data from local figureheads with the entire town. What begins as individual attacks turns into an information dump on half of Salem. Then, similar to The Crucible, the citizens devolve into an angry, violent mob hellbent on tracking down the person responsible for the data breach and they wind up targeting Lily and her crew.
Assassination Nation is bright, bold, fantastically shot and extremely frenetic. Whether it’s the extreme party vibe featured in the first half of the film or the vicious witch hunt of the second half, Levinson’s heightened tone and vibrant style are intoxicating and infectious. There’s a reason Assassination Nation had the Midnight Madness crowd cheering from start to finish; this movie is electric.
However, one must wonder if the audible responses were all for the right reasons. Cheers for retribution are one thing but cheers for violence are another, and there were a few moments during Assassination Nation that made me suspect the line of glorifying violence was being crossed, an unfortunate risk one runs when mixing satire and horror, especially a horror movie so heavily focused on some very disturbing real-world concerns.
On the other hand, when Levinson nails the balance, the results are both wildly alarming and extremely potent. Don’t be surprised if one of the first things you do after walking out of Assassination Nation is reconsider what you keep on your phone, how you conduct yourself on social media, or obsess over any teeny, tiny personal digital detail that could send the wrong message. Nowadays just about everything is under a microscope 24/7 thanks to a variety of tech that contributes to our “now, now, now” and “look at me” style of living, and Assassination Nation offers up a stylized and sardonic look at what could happen should that judgmental, often hypocritical mob mentality take hold.
The lynch pins of this wild ride are the performances, specifically Young and Nef. Unfortunately, Waterhouse’s Sarah is a mere blip on the radar thanks to an utter lack of character development and Abra’s Em falls short as well, even with a limited peek at her home life with her single mother that paves the way to one of the film’s most riveting action sequences. But, Young and Nef are knockouts as Lily and Bex.
Young is an undeniable star. She effortlessly commands the screen and is brimming with fiery energy – qualities that are vital to the role. And the same goes for Nef as Bex. She’s a character who exudes confidence and privately deals with vulnerability. Assassination Nation doesn’t hold back in the least when it come to showing these two characters being repeatedly objectified by those around them. It’s hard to watch but when they stand up for themselves and fight back, those are the moments when every single fist-pump, cheer or however it is you celebrate a big screen triumph is very well earned.
And that’s one of the most striking qualities of Assassination Nation overall, the way Levinson reflects that quality through his visuals. There are moments at the beginning of the film when his camera leers at his leading quartet. He gives you the impression you’re about to watch the Queen Bees dominate the school and live their late teen dreams, but then the reality of their existence seeps in, the glory of the hottest selfie loses its charm, and you start to realize the forced, glossy exterior is often a false recipe for disaster. Levinson highlights this especially well by making the shift from glorified teen dream-type visuals – like the girls strutting down the halls at school – to essentially trapping the viewer in darker, tighter frames that tease the unease and self-doubt lurking underneath, which ultimately bubbles over through a disturbingly intimate depiction of verbal and physical abuse.
Assassination Nation is a rollercoaster of a film that oscillates between deeply disturbing satire and a highly entertaining kitchy ride. The movie is at its best when both qualities are operating full force with one enhancing the other, but often times one feels too distant from the other, an issue that becomes especially apparent towards the tail end of the film. But still, Assassination Nation is an unforgettable thrill thanks to Levinson’s fearless approach to addressing some very real concerns with unparalleled style. He may not nail every step towards the big finish, but the positivity and empowerment of that moment is downright radiant.