Set in modern-day Salem, the events of Assassination Nation bear more than a passing resemblance to the town’s infamous hysterical witch-hunting history, even if heroine Lily’s (Odessa Young) claim that this is a true story has a whiff of “fake news” about it.
In doing what all good satirists do, writer-director Sam Levinson constructs a twisted reality only slightly distinct from our own. The director’s second feature is nothing if not ludicrous. Centred around a cadre of ultra-vapid, unfailingly shallow teens and culminating in an orgiastic riot of violence, Assassination Nation practically dares its audience to hate it. And it will undoubtedly inspire derision among those to whom social media and the proclivities of the young – especially young women – are baffling modern boogeymen on which to lump all of society’s ills.
Indeed, the film’s four heroines – Lily, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) – are wilfully, exceptionally annoying. Talking in a god-awful valley drawl that needlessly extends the vowel sounds of every word, the girls spend most of their time alternating between posing for selfies and slut shaming their peers. We’ve seen these sexist clichés a thousand times before – from the teen films of the 1980s and 90s to Harmony Korine’s misunderstood Spring Breakers. But rarely has a film been so on point about the complex ways that young women are represented – and represent themselves – in the media. Piece by piece, Assassination Nation lays out and deconstructs the misogynistic assumptions that underpin many of our reactions to the girls’ behaviour.
The first major moment of this deconstruction comes in the bravura party sequence, where the sexual exploits of the revellers are cross-cut and split-screened over Lily’s voice-over narration. The monochrome lighting of each segment, the seductively driving soundtrack and the sheer audacity of the thing are striking, but it’s Lily’s analysis of sex and sexuality as a mirthless performance – that strikes the clearest note. Juxtaposed against Bex’s tryst with Diamond (Danny Ramirez) – who must keep their relationship secret because Bex is a trans woman, it is at once deeply cynical and affirmative – a disarmingly astute moment of reflection that celebrates the ambivalence of their behaviour while lamenting the system that produces it.
This moral ambivalence extends to the film’s representation of social media, refusing to scapegoat it as a catch-all scourge. Instead, Assassination Nation finds the same old moral hypocrisies, bigotry and systems of oppression channeled through our dependency on Twitter and Instagram. When Salem’s’ moral house of cards invariably falls, the girls are conveniently blamed for the town’s litany of transgressions.
When the group reaps its bloody vengeance on the town, clad in iconic scarlet rain coats, the catharsis feels necessary and defiant. Their rampage is necessitated by the film’s second, stunning set piece, this time a single tracking shot moving around Em’s home as it is besieged by a gang of vigilante goons. Ironically, among all the call backs to revenge cinema, Assassination Nation is as self-consciously contemporary as it gets – so much so that it feels as if it’s dating even as it plays in front of us. But a thing’s permanence does not determine its greatness; as a fable, Assassination Nation is cynical, jaded, and defiant: in other words, vintage 2018.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell