23rd Nov2018

‘Assassination Nation’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra, Colman Domingo, Bill Skarsgård, Joel McHale, Anika Noni Rose, Bella Thorne, Maude Apatow, Cody Christian, Danny Ramirez | Written and Directed by Sam Levinson

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The Salem witch trials are brought screaming into the 21st century through the lens of the modern teenage experience. This is the story of how the town “lost its f-ing mind.” With its cellphone alerts and glitchy, grindy soundtrack, it’s a snapshot of youth today. It will date instantly, of course. But right now it’s enough to make you ditch your smartphone and go back to the 3310. Assassination Nation is a sensory shotgun to the face. It’s multi-layered and it feels vital.

The highly fractured story gravitates around four high school friends. Popular and trendy,  they lead their private lives, share some of it online, and then come together and chat about the bits they shared. So far, so normal for this day and age. One day, the town mayor’s phone is hacked. All his dirty laundry is revealed. There’s zero sympathy among the locals. “Lock him up!” they cry. Lock him up and make America great again. While the cops attempt to find the person who leaked the mayor’s life and drove him to suicide, the distorted, hypocritical attitudes of a hyperconnected society continue unchecked.

Then the school principal is hacked. His private pictures are far more ambiguous. The four friends start getting anxious. What if they are next? Gradually the hacker creeps through the community, spilling the sordid secrets of Salem. The effect is devastating. And, as the locals begin to split ever more extremely, the girls can sense the eyes of the righteous turning toward them. Before they know it, the whole town is riven by conflict, and the guns come out – along with the worst impulses of tribal humanity.

Our “hero” of sorts is Lily (Odessa Young), who is as flawed, insightful, frustrating and smart as any American teenager. Lily can’t get approval of her principal or her father or her controlling boyfriend. But she can get approval through sexting. The recipient is the guy for whom she used to do babysitting. She calls him “Daddy”. A talented artist, Lily sketches “explicit” drawings, but she’s actually exploring the notion of sexuality. She consistently highlights how men are driven by sex, and how this leads them to double standards, like when her father says that he didn’t feel comfortable seeing her naked after age two.

A subplot concerns Bex (Hari Nef), Lily’s trans friend, and her romantic encounter with a school jock. He’s instantly ashamed, and Bex’s story becomes a keystone for themes around the incompatibility between socially-constructed disgust and the private desires of individuals. It also alludes to the underlying notion that the alt-right movement is founded on misogyny.

There are other themes, too – perhaps not fully ignited, but sparked sufficiently to inspire discussion. There’s the matter of privacy, and the power it affords us; and the way that, without control over privacy, we lose a vital part of what it is to be an autonomous human.  The film is holding a circus mirror up to America today: its tendency to overreact and divide in a terrible binary way; how political rage becomes lethally personal and the innocent are first to be lynched; and the country’s obsession with glorifying violence and revenge, and how as consumers we are complicit in this.

Assassination Nation tosses around these themes with as much thrilling abandon as it does genre. But at bottom it is a horror movie (not quite a slasher – a “hacker”?). The cult movie touchstones are there on the surface. There’s the hint of Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile in the idea of a single small event triggering an apocalypse. And with its swirling, spinning, sickly camerawork and doomy, bendy electro, a bit of Gaspar Noe, whilst being decidedly more conventional in its narrative. If not wholly original in its approach, writer-director Sam Levinson’s film feels fresh.

Levinson doesn’t simply “fuck the frame”. There’s a superbly disciplined lingering shot as the mayor walks through corridors toward the public mob, the realisation of his predicament etched on his face. More than anything, in his use of split-screens, slow motion and his wandering voyeur lens, I see in Levinson’s work a young Brian De Palma. Toward the end there’s a wonderfully virtuoso single take, viewed through the windows of a house, which culminates in a bloodbath the likes of which the old Grand Guignol master would be proud.

The script is occasionally erudite (“It’s amazing how someone so inconsequential can make you feel so inconsequential”), although the film is so restless that we barely get a chance to get to really know any of these characters. The escalation to full-on, masked anarchy isn’t hugely convincing, partially elided by jumping forward a week. And could the film have done without its climactic speech? “Righteousness is the sickness,” she preaches, and it’s a bit on-the-nose. But then, this is a film where everything is delivered to the nose, usually in the form of a punch.

Assassination Nation is a nihilistic vision of the state of modern America, and another strong instalment in the new wave of feminist horror. I sense – I hope – following its negligible US box office, that it has a chance of becoming a cult classic in the vein of Michael Lehmann’s Heathers. The blend of styles, the controlled wavering tone, the filmmaking flourishes, its excess and its timely themes – it’s all there, and thoroughly refreshing.

Assassination Nation is out in cinemas from today, 23rd November 2018.

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