In Assassination Nation, writer-director Sam Levinson puts the formalist pedal to the metal, opening the film with neon-blasted cinematography, quick cuts, and text that offers mocking “trigger warnings.” These devices are tied together with disaffected narration, as the film’s teenage characters have been conditioned by their culture to speak in a haughty slang that’s intended to connote sexual power, though Levinson understands it to truly express loneliness and alienation. The young women of Assassination Nation endlessly film themselves on their phones and share hard, eroticized photos of their isolated body parts online, largely to please a coterie of hormonal men. While Levinson is too eager to impress and shock his audience, the film’s opening scenes do connote the sense of unreality that’s been ushered in by the online lust and rage machine. The film’s protagonist is so cocooned in her self-consciousness that she even knows she’s the star of a movie, which is, of course, the ultimate dream that’s implicitly promised by social media.
Lily (Odessa Young) is an intelligent, attractive high school student in Salem who loathes patriarchal hypocrisy while dressing in skimpy cut-off shorts and snapping fetishistic pics of herself with her cellphone for a mystery man who calls himself “daddy” and occasionally addresses her as “slut.” Lily chafes against the misogynistic and the progressive forms of shaming. Lily struggles to do whatever she pleases in the name of finding herself, though her behavior from an outside vantage point strongly resembles that of a conventional male fantasy, allowing Levinson to savor Young and satirize male objectification in unequal proportions, having his cake and eating it too.
Though this is partially the point of Assassination Nation, this “attitude” becomes wearying, as the film is a relentless torrent of preachy stimulation. For a filmmaker with such theoretically wild and subversive intentions, Levinson is awfully eager to please. After the opening scenes, the film continues to abound in stylistic devices that are meant to establish Levinson’s audacious bona fides while blurring the boundaries between cinema and social media. Some of his gimmicks do land though. In one of the film’s better devices, which is lifted from The Rules of Attraction, Levinson utilizes split screens to separate characters who’re in the same setting, showing them to be together yet apart—lost in their heads, their phones, and their myriad individual insecurities. When Lily’s transgender friend, Bex (Hari Nef), has sex with a handsome football player, their actions are cordoned off into different frames, which sometimes fade into shots of Lily and other members of their group, offering a panorama of sexualized aggression and frustration.
Inspired by the Russian interference with the 2016 American presidential election, which Assassination Nation explicitly mentions, Levinson also fashions a nasty and all-too-plausible plot hook: A hacker begins a reign of terror in Salem, uploading citizens’ private correspondences, exposing their kinks, hungers, and betrayals, which leads to anarchy that culminates in the senseless persecution of women. Levinson manages to out-purge The Purge, as some of this film’s violence is brutally staged and disturbing, particularly Lily’s blood-drenched faceoff with “daddy” in a bathroom.
Yet the killing and stalking ironically offers a relief from the suffocating aura of judgment that Levinson conjures and sustains for Assassination Nation‘s first hour. Levinson disappointingly skimps on a crucial narrative development, eliding Salem’s evolution from a place of recognizable hypocrisy and pettiness to an all-out war zone. Levinson declines to speculate on the escalation to violence that powered, say, the original Salem witch trails, and which is seeping back into our culture again, with the pronounced help of a demagogue who’s held by his government to no ethical standards.
The film also feels hypocritical itself, serving as the cinematic equivalent of a bro who hashtags #MeToo for easy cultural credibility. Levinson’s notion of female revolution boils down to the usual masculinized action-movie clichés, with young scantily clad women gunning masked bad guys down in sequences that offer the same falsely hopeful catharses that’re peddled by superhero extravaganzas. The film succumbs to Lily’s own crisis of identity, at once decrying male hate culture while playing by its rules. Lily and her friends’ transformation into indestructible avengers serves to cheapen their pain and vulnerability. Assassination Nation carelessly affirms the idea that all women should be able to fight back at will, and if they don’t, it’s on them.