Assassination Nation – a noisy, bloody allegory for modern society – may feel like being whacked over the head by a righteously raging My Little Pony, but it’s also hugely entertaining. One of the problems with fighting back against a resurgence like Trump’s is that eventually people just get bored. They know he’s awful already. You won’t be bored watching this.
Imagine The Purge crossed with Heathers liberally dosed in more blood than Carrie and that’s a good approximation of Sam Levinson’s film, where a small American town turns on its young women for doing exactly what society has told them to do – until they fight back.
It’s loud, funny and brash, the satire super-blunt. Often social dramas work as undercurrents – this is a tsunami (mostly of blood), but considering its targets it has to be. Soft words and clever jokes are making little impact outside of the echo chamber. And besides, many of the liberals uttering them are clearly enjoying being bystanders to history; they aren’t particularly affected by what’s happening.
Hurt male feelings loom large in Assassination Nation. It reminded me of Margaret Atwood asking men and women what they feared from each other: men that women will laugh at them, women that men will kill them.
The film starts with a series of trigger warnings: including sexism, homophobia, transphobia and – yes – fragile male egos.
Lily (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, Bex (Hani Ref), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), are at high school in Salem (the town which hanged the witches): partying, sexting, and putting the world to rights in teenspeak I didn’t understand.
In baggy hoodies and teeny shorts, with Fatal Attraction ankle socks and glittery pompommed phone cases, they’re forthright and sexy, acting the way they’ve been told.
But when Salem is targeted by a hacker all hell breaks loose. First up is the bigoted “family values” mayor, though nobody is too upset to see him get his comeuppance after pictures of him in women’s underwear, along with his web searches for gay sex, leak online. It takes a darker turn when he walks into a press conference and blows his brains out.
Next it’s the school principal (Colman Domingo), a well-liked educator and family man who is brought down when pictures of his six year old daughter in the bath are found.
Then when Lily’s texting buddy – an older, married father – is hacked, instead of online trolls targeting him they go after the headless teen in the numerous sexy selfies discovered in his data. An online wave of misogyny disguised as righteous indignation takes hold, as everyone tries to work out who she is.
Women’s terror is worth less than men’s feelings though, and soon Lily and her friends are targets for a town accusing Lily of being both a hacker and a whore.
But when the four friends are attacked by a group of masked men intent on killing them, they have to fight back. The home invasion is extraordinary, and bloody (though not so bloody as where Lily ends up next). The night looks utterly terrifying, the streets outside either crammed with screaming baying monsters acting on rage-driven instinct, or eerily empty, a safe space for the chillingly prepared to enact their deliberate tortures.
Levinson has several targets which, though linked, make the movie feel scattergun. At first glance this is about the rise of Trump and the attitudes that support him, attitudes which it turns out never went away. How quickly people turn on neighbours, blaming and scapegoating.
Social media looms large, though it’s more as a neutral delivery mechanism, where what it delivers is never deleted – unlike old-fashioned newspaper exposes, modern indiscretions will never be next week’s discarded chip wrappers.
But mainly Assassination Nation is about a patriarchal society that has absorbed the soundbites of feminism and fed them back to young women, without ever reforming itself. So women and girls are encouraged to break out of age-old confines (whether speaking up or sending sexy photos) and feel empowered by doing so, yet are then blamed and shamed for doing exactly that.
For someone as old as me it says nothing new about sexism and it often feels like a shouty, frenetic lecture. It’s an important message though.
Everything is over-explained, though I’m unsure if that over-explanation is simply a result of how we communicate today without nuance – or whether at those points the film is satirising itself.
The treatment of Lily by her town and her family is exceptionally awful. She’s sent some sexy pics to a married man, and soon she’s on the streets, labelled a whore. It’s a heightened version of life for young women but not unbelievable.
There are neat touches. Everyone leaves their curtains open at night, their lives visible to all. A real world version of online life, where the lure of Likes or being followed by a cool stranger makes us ignore those privacy options. I liked the girls’ bright red, short PVC macs, signalling their own unit while also acting as a fuck-you to the idea that your clothes make you blameworthy.
Everyone is masked: the people of Salem when they go out armed and shouting; and the layers of identities young women cloak themselves in, to protect themselves and because of the mixed messages they are sent.
Many of the characters are just sketched. So it’s no surprise that the best performances come from Odessa Young and Hani Ref, whose characters are well-rounded, personally targeted and pushed to their limits.
Young is exceptional as Lily. Her tears when she discovers she’s been hacked, her desperate apologies to her parents when all she’s done is flirt with an older man and send some risqué photos, are very affecting.
Ref too is impressive; she’s terrific throughout the film and Bex threatens to take over every scene she’s in. But her look of resigned devastation when her crush Danny instructs her not to tell anyone they’ve had sex because she’s trans is extraordinarily moving.
Stripping away the noise and blood of Assassination Nation might not leave much left. I’m not sure it’ll become a cult classic; there’s probably not enough there for repeated rewatching (and it’s not particularly clever).
Like Lily, though, it’s a powerhouse performance – that turns a silent scream of frustration and fear from young women into one of structured rage and determination.