Assassination Nation has no idea what kind of movie that it wants to be. It’s the kind of film that wants to desperately wants and needs to be important, to provoke you with sex and violence and provocative themes while at the same time giving you a list of potential trigger warnings before the story begins. And yet even that warning is shot in a winking way, like the square up before Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. I doubt that’s the comparison the filmmakers want, because this is also a film yearning to be important, to be discussed, yet it seems to have disappeared into theaters.
The fact that the movie takes place in Salem, Massasschutesetts is the first of many sledgehammer subtle points that the script makes. There, our four heroines — Lily, Bex, Em and Sarah — are normal teenage girls dealing with high school and growing up and hormones and all the horror that goes with it.
For some, it’s harder than others. Lily has stopped being a babysitter for the Mathers family after the father’s (Joel McHale) attentions got to her. That hasn’t stopped her from continuing to text him and referring to him as Daddy, despite her relationship with Mark (Bill Skarsgard, It). Beks is transgender and has a crush on Diamond, who wants to keep their hookup a secret. Em and Sarah really never get a chance to define who they are, to be perfectly honest.
A wannabe hacker named Marty is asked to spread a file with images and videos of anti-gay Mayor Bartlett having sex with men and dressing in women’s clothes. This causes the mayor to go into a downward spiral and kill himself at a press conference. As the police try to investigate, everyone in town becomes hacked, like Principal Turrell, who is one of the few positive adults in the film. His phone has photos of his child nude, which makes everyone think he’s a pedophile, yet he refuses to stop being an educator. His story kind of stops there, despite all the investment the movie has put into it so far.
From there on out, the town’s secrets are revealed. Cheerleader Reagan (Bella Thorne) leaked her best friend’s (Maude Apatow, daughter of Judd) nude photos and must pay. Lily’s secret sexting older man is revealed and his family leaves him. Lily’s photos and videos that she would send the older man are revealed, which leads to Mark and his friends holding her down and taking photos of her body marks to prove it’s her in a harrowing scene. Her life goes to hell as her parents kick her out, men chase her with knives and the entire town soon believes that she’s behind the hacks thanks to Marty revealing that tons of internet traffic was coming from her house (it’s worth noting that Becca instantly figured out the film’s big reveal here).
Here’s where the film either gets suspenseful or narratively falls apart, depending on your point of view. Everyone in the town starts wearing masks to hide their identity and sins from one another, which is an interesting plot point if the masks they wore didn’t look exactly like The Purge. Again, this is a movie that yearns to be taken seriously with a woke angel on one shoulder while the devil on the other keeps pulling it toward exploitation. Because it never really goes all in on either side, it becomes somewhat of a muddled mess.
That isn’t to say the final scenes aren’t packed with suspense, including a stedicam sequence outside and inside the house as masked assailants invade the home and take the girls hostage that recalls Dean Cundy’s landmark work in Halloween. And the standoff between Lily and Nick, her “daddy,” is filled with eye-popping close-ups and intense violence, with the gore actually grossing out people in our theater versus titillating them.
That’s when the film descends into empowerment fantasy territory, with the girls donning red trenchcoats ala Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. Most people would probably get past the scene of the girls watching this movie in bed quickly, but it felt like the brakes being slammed for me. You know, this is pure Quentin Tarantino territory — this is obviously some alternate reality where the most popular girls in school all get together to cosplay watch an incredibly deep cut Japanese rape revenge film. That said, you can totally buy the official jacket they wore from the film now.
The girls unleash their vengeance on the town before Lily finds the time to make a viral video that unites all of the young women together as they come face to face in a final confrontation with the masked men of Salem.
If the film stopped here and gave no answers as to why this all happened or what happened next, but instead just kept the narrative that bad things happen for no reason, I may have liked it more. I liked that the fate of the main characters could be left up to the viewer, but the closing scene establishes the true ending.
I think Sam Levinson is a hell of a director. This film looks gorgeous and attempts some really technical sequences, like the home invasion, as well as split screens that would make DePalma jealous. The colors, the textures, the rapid pops as footage zooms in — all gorgeous. But the story is lacking. Lily’s final speech wants so badly to be a rallying cry, but so much of it comes off as an apology that’s an actual lack of apology. Everybody has bad secrets in their closet in Salem, but it’s the young women who have never had a chance to do things the right way — well, at least our four protagonists and their sisters that rally between them, at least — who are the ones in the right. Lily is able to admit that she’s done things that are wrong, but seems to write them off in this speech.
Assassination Nation wants to be Heathers for the SJW generation, vehemently denounced by the establishment and endlessly debated on talk shows and in classrooms, but it seems like no one really cared. Instead, it comes off as “What if Harmony Korine directed The Purge?”
It’s a movie that at the same time wants to empower women and give them a voice while putting masculine weapons into their hands and allowing them to shoot and stab their way to emancipation, skirting the issue that we live in a world where mass shootings happen nearly every single day, but the right good guy or girl with a gun is the narrative difference. If that true, how is your side any more correct than the other side? Instead of picking a side, instead of choosing between parable and pablum, this film makes no such choice.
The credit sequence — in which an African-American marching band drumline steps through the carnage of the town to their version of Miley Cyrus’s “We Don’t Stop” sums up this film perfectly. It looks gorgeous, it seems transgressive and it feels like it has something to say but is ultimately sound and fury signifying nothing.