Assassination Nation Is The Film Your Parents Don't Want You To See…Or Your Teachers, Or Your Politicians
"This is a story about how my town, Salem, lost its motherfucking mind," 18-year-old Lily Coulson (Odessa Young) narrates in the first scene of Assassination Nation.
Salem, of course, has lost its mind before. In 1692, mass hysteria caused roughly 200 people to be accused of witchcraft, a saga that ended with the conviction and execution of 19 citizens — 14 of them women. Director Sam Levinson, who also wrote the script, tells an updated version of events, replacing 17th century Puritans with anonymous 4chan users, and witches with their 21st century equivalent: sexy, emancipated teenage girls.
Lily and her closest friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) are the Instagram version of Gen Z high school seniors. They're aggressively open about their sexuality, obsessed with social media, and unconcerned with the rules of middle class morality set forth by their parents. They're young, they're free, and they want to live life on their own terms.
But when a hacker starts leaking Salem's secrets, all hell breaks loose. Suddenly, everything is out in the open: the conservative, "family values" oriented mayor's penchant for lingerie; the high school principal's pictures of his two-year-old daughter naked in the bath; the affair via sext that Lily is having with an older man while dodging calls from her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skårsgard); the evidence that Reagan (Bella Thorne) leaked Grace's (Maude Apatow) nudes to the whole school. In the midst of the total anarchy that ensues, Salemites are looking for someone to blame, and Lily and her friends are an easy target.
At first glance, it's easy to see how Assassination Nation could be perceived as problematic. Levinson's bloody, stylised take on the slasher horror genre focuses on four teenage girls who spend most of the hour and forty-seven minute run time clad in the shortest shorts possible, with the camera lecherously panning their legs. The second half of the film builds up to a brutal scene of attempted rape. There's a fine line between portraying violence against women as social commentary and just revelling in it, and Levinson teeters over each edge at various times throughout. It's the ultimate male gaze. In fact, it says it right there in the list of trigger warnings that open the film.
But what's interesting is how Levinson chooses to wield that gaze — as a weapon aimed at the audience, rather than the girls. It's a bold move on the part of the male director, who appears to be challenging viewers to judge and sexualise these high school seniors. There's no overt nudity in Assassination Nation, no scene that's entirely black and white. Everything is sexually charged, yes, but in a way that puts the onus on the audience. What is it about a woman's body that's innately sexual? Is it a matter of perception? Of cultural baggage? Of upbringing? And what's more terrifying than a group of young women who reflect our darkest fears and desires back at us? Imagine the power they could have if unified against their oppressors in one powerful, unbreakable, furious force?
Australian actress Young anchors the film with a strong, unvarnished performance. Her narration provides insight into the double life she leads: on the outside, she's carefree, a party girl whose boyfriend's drunk, mean comments mean nothing as she storms off to text her older lover. But on the inside, she's struggling. Struggling to keep up appearances, to figure out what she wants, what's expected of her, and how to exist in this world that seems hostile on every front. Nef is poignantly resilient as Bex, a trans woman who, like Lily, projects utmost fierce yasss feminist pride in her public persona; this is a smokescreen concealing a fragile being whose face crumples when the boy she likes uses her for sex but is ashamed to go public. (Abra and Waterhouse aren't given much to work with, however. Other than the fact that the two are sisters — a fact that never really gets explained, despite the fact that Em and their mom are Black while Sarah is not — we don't get to know much about them.)
Those dual personalities are on full display at a party early on in the film. In wide shots, the girls are seen partying together, dancing and revelling under moody, neon lighting. But as they break off into separate sub-interactions, the screen splits, revealing their true selves. It's a not-so-subtle commentary on our tendency to present our best face on social media — not as we are, but as how we hope to be.
Levinson is clearly fascinated by a generation that has grown up with a very different conception of privacy. In one scene, Thorne's character makes that evident in a semi-monologue about how cute it is that "old people" still think they can have secrets. It's scary to think that we've created, and constantly buy into a situation that will probably lead to our own demise — but it's also freeing. The youth of Assassination Nation is optimistically nihilistic, a mess of contradictions, like a group of boys using the proper pronouns for Bex as they attempt to lynch her for being trans.
Hollywood has a poor track record when it comes to accurately depicting technology and how teenagers actually use it, but Assassination Nation breaks the mould. Sure, you'll probably cringe when someone tosses out an "it's lit," but the film's core portrayal of the internet's ability to magnify cruel behaviour and mob mentality is accurate. It's a behaviour that's repeated later on in the film, when townspeople start wearing masks when hunting down the girls. The first half of the film effectively builds tension because it feels real. Who among us has not
had a moment of severe paranoia briefly considering what would happen if someone gained access to our online presence? It's a prospect so horrifying as to be placed squarely into the realm of the abject.
Ultimately though, it's hard to pinpoint what Levinson is actually targeting. Is it social media? Misogyny? Homophobia? Internet culture? Gossip? Donald Trump? The answer is probably all of the above, but it makes for some heavy-handed messaging verging on sensorial overload. Lily's narration, so useful when it comes to providing insight into her own mind, is too often used to explain what the audience should be able to interpret onscreen. It seems counterintuitive, but Assassination Nation would pack more of a punch if it did a little less.
Still, maybe the times we live in don't call for subtlety. Because watching Lily deliver a rallying cry to young women that inspires them (and some male allies) to pour out into the street in support, my heart swelled — with pride, at what we can accomplish, and with pain, at what we're still up against.
It’s Heathers meets The Purge when a town-wide data leak means four teen girls have to rise up against slut-shaming, hate, and toxic masculinity. Get ready for Assassination Nation, the first film in an exclusive partnership from Refinery29 and Neon.