Centred around a quartet of unapologetically shallow teen girls more concerned with getting likes on Instagram than decent grades, and culminating in an orgy of gender-demarcated violence, Assassination Nation seems to set out to try to offend everyone - from the social justice warriors on the left to the second amendment fetishisers on the right, from Millennial snowflakes who have never known life without social media to Baby boomers who just can't get their head around why going viral is so important. And pretty much everyone in between. The satirical ire of writer/director Sam Levinson
's second feature, however, is aimed more specifically at those who tend to see the proclivities of sexually "aggressive" (i.e., sexually confident) young women through misogyny-tinted glasses as the ruination of society (the type of insecure males who believe the term "toxic masculinity" is an oxymoron). Starting out as a commentary on a society becoming ever more defined by online hysteria and the erosion of traditional concepts of privacy, the film charts a course from Heathers (1988)
and Mean Girls (2004)
to The Purge (2013)
by way of The Second Civil War (1997)
, Blackhat (2015)
, and Bushwick (2017)
. True, it does run out of steam in its third act, and, overall, it tries to take on too many issues. Nevertheless, this is perceptive stuff, with a solid central socio-political thesis and a savagely satirical narrative (even if it is populated by underwritten characters).
The film tells the story of four relatively normal high-school friends, Lily (Odessa Young
), Bex (Hari Nef
), Em (Abra
), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse
). When half of the population of the town is hacked, and all their data made public, the quartet, and Lily in particular, soon find themselves at the dangerous centre of a rapidly escalating situation, as the town finds itself becoming increasingly militarised and polarised. Assassination Nation made news in January, when it was the biggest sale at the Sundance Film Festival, purchased by NEON for $10 million. However, when it went on wide release in North America in September, it flopped badly, taking only $1 million in its opening weekend, and finishing 15th at the box office. This is a real shame, but perhaps it's not unexpected. The fact that it holds a very unflattering mirror up to contemporary American society was never going to pull in the multiplex crowds. That that mirror is satirical probably didn't help either. 31% of Americans believe that a second Civil War will happen within their lifetime, almost certainly race related, and I can't imagine people who think this way being especially receptive to the kind of satire seen in this film.
Assassination Nation works primarily, if not wholly, by way of exaggeration, as with so much great Juvenalian satire - from the writings of Juvenalis himself to Jonathan Swift's mastering of the form, to modern novels such as Bret Easton Ellis
's American Psycho (1991), onto films such as Natural Born Killers (1994)
and Wag the Dog (1997)
. Levinson is not positing the story as a possible real-world scenario. This isn't social realism. Instead, he is accentuating the damage such a thing could do to highlight our own society's very real obsession with social media and the concomitant importance of digital privacy. Possible to either deride the film as the worst imaginable type of excess of #MeToo, or celebrate it as an insightful examination of the origins of a fempowerment created by those very forces which led to #MeToo in the first place, it takes as its starting point the fear that female agency (particularly regarding sexuality) can instil in the patriarchal status quo. The film presents a patriarchy which firmly believes that if young women dress provocatively, they have it coming, whatever "it" may be.
Levinson sets the tone immediately. The opening shot shows a camera moving along a suburban street, passing by idyllic white picket fences, Blue Velvet (1986)
-style, with people performing mundane tasks such as emptying the trash and watering the lawn. Except everyone is wearing a mask of some kind. A voice-over then informs us that this is a story about how Salem "lost its motherf---king." A rapidly edited montage then shows a series of quick clips, each one labelled with a requisite "trigger warning", including toxic masculinity, the male gaze, sexism, violence, gore, and fragile male egos.
How the film deal with the male gaze is especially interesting. An early shot shows the four girls walking into school in slow motion as the camera starts at their feet and slowly pans up their bare legs before moving around behind them. You couldn't get a more textbook example of a cinematic male gaze. However, towards the end of the film, the exact same shot is repeated, but in this instance, the girls are effectively going to war, and the male gaze is no longer an issue, something the film draws to the audience's attention by replicating the form of the earlier shot - in short, the male gaze is reproduced so as to satirise and ridicule it.
Another aesthetically interesting scene occurs after the data dump, but prior to people turning on one another, learning that her best friend has been mocking her behind her back, an acquaintance of the central quartet takes a baseball bat, finds her friend in the school gym, and cracks her over the head. This scene is the first act of violence from which all others will follow. It starts out normal enough, but soon the camera turns upside-down and we see the girl standing against an unrealistically large American flag. Turning the camera upside-down like this mid-shot and using the flag in this way indicates that something within the social fabric has fundamentally changed; there has been some kind of paradigm shift. Indeed, speaking of the American flag, it's a recurring motif throughout the film, but we rarely see it without a gun nearby, usually in the same shot. Make of that what you will.
The film's most aesthetically accomplished scene, however, is a five-minute single-take shot depicting a home invasion, with the camera remaining outside the house, following the action as it moves from window to window. It's a dazzling sequence that has the effect of positioning the audience as passive spectators.
Speaking of themes, one of the film's strengths, but also one of its weaknesses, is the sheer volume of issues with which it engages; misogyny, feminism, fempowerment, social media, sexual assault, #MeToo, bullying, gun culture, toxic masculinity, the male gaze, racism, gang mentality, digital privacy, desensitisation, mansplaining. In only the third scene, shocked at Lily's drawings of naked women in sexually provocative positions, Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo
) tells her, "this is high-school, and justly or unjustly, there are limits to what you can say," as she tries to argue that nudity does not necessarily have to be sexual. Adopting a feminist defence, she posits that her art is reflective of how difficult it is for women in a misogynistic selfie-obsessed social media-saturated culture, explaining, "it's not about the nudity. It's about the thousands of naked selfies you took to get just one right."
Arising from this are a plethora of other issues. For example, firmly of the belief that privacy is a thing of the past, Lily claims that her generation accepts that their lives are for mass consumption, and all they can do are try to choose how they are consumed. In relation to this, the film addresses the myriad ways that young girls are represented on social media, deconstructing and satirising the inherently misogynistic assumptions that underpin so many of our attitudes to online behaviour. Indeed, the hypocrisy and "holier-than-thou" attitudes most people assume online come to the fore when naked pictures of Turrell's six-year-old daughter in a bath are leaked, and the town accuse him of being a paedophile.
Unfortunately, because the film tries to deal with so much, many of the issues are raised only to be touched on once or twice, and then dropped. This has the side-effect of making it seem a little thematically scattershot, and it would have worked far better if Levinson had threaded a core group through the narrative rather than jumping around as much as he does. Aside from dealing with too many themes, if the film has a defining flaw, it's that the last act essentially turns into The Purge, wherein the girls, as complicit as everyone else in the early part of the film, now turn into the leaders of a righteous avenging vigilante group facing off against the intolerance born of right-wing jingoism, a conflict drawn primarily along gender lines, although not exclusively (there are a few men on the girls' side, and vice versa). It's a disappointingly simplistic dénouement given the complexity and thematic depth of the preceding narrative.
Nevertheless, depicting a cultural anxiety that is uniquely contemporary, Assassination Nation taps into something inherently new in human culture, and is an unexpectedly smart film examining weighty topics of great importance to the socio-political moment, irrespective of your political affiliation. While it is immensely strong (both hilarious and disturbing) in its depiction of teenage gender politics, gun culture, political correctness, online behaviour etc, it falters when it comes to the dynamics of the narrative, setting up several strands which never pay off, and ending a little weakly. Nevertheless, the questions it raises are important ones, and they are very well asked.