Assassination Nation plugs America and the age of social media full of bullet holes until the gun goes click. The problem with this mode of cinematic attack is it leaves a lot of splatter and mess. A comic strip bat-shit crazy, Sam Levinson’s film is a declaration of war against the social and political hypocrisy poisoning the USA.
A state of the nation howl directly descended from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Gregg Araki movies and Wes Craven’s nuclear-families-in-crisis horror movies, without ever achieving the same memorable heights, all told Assassination Nation ends up more like a highfalutin episode of The Purge series designed to get the chattering classes and online commentators chattering until they spontaneously combust. This is a film with Important Things To Say about the corrosive influence of the internet and the toxic demands it is placing on suburbanites (specifically young girls) and the country’s social fabric.
But in this Looney Tunes era that is the Trump presidency, a world on the brink of ecological disaster and enough think-pieces to last a million lifetimes, do we really need a movie to remind us Things Are Really Bad Right Now? In other words, what is Assassination Nation bringing to the table, that we don’t already know? Parts of its shrill message therefore feel unconvincing, redundant, even dead on arrival, though it equally scores vital points on occasion regarding social conditioning and gender politics.
One day in the town of Salem, Massachusetts (famous for its witch trials and the mass hysteria it provoked), an unknown computer hacker exposes the secret online lives of prominent authority figures. First, a homophobic mayor is targeted. It is revealed to Salem’s citizens he loves to spend his downtime in stockings and suspenders, paying male hookers for sexual services. Yet he got to a position of power on a platform of conservative messaging. In response to being outed, he shoots himself live on television, in the style of 1980s bureaucrat Budd Dwyer. The hacker then targets a quartet of teenage girls. When they realise they’re being blamed for everything going wrong, the gal pals don red PVC coats and arm themselves to the teeth, determined to fight back against the bullshit and act like the cartoon embodiment of Bikini Kill’s Double Dare Ya.
Levinson certainly directs with plenty of vim and flash, though the film too often resembles what might happen if Nicolas Winding Refn directed an American Idiot-era Green Day promo, the highlight is a home invasion sequence played out like a love letter to the most famous scene from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae. Yet when Levinson attempts to get too clever, such as an opening montage of scenes featuring murder, attempted rape, transphobia, homophobia, complete with on-screen trigger warnings (for the snowflakes), the effect is more Gaspar No than Noé.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn