Assassination Nation (2018)
You asked for it, America.
Centuries after the famous hangings of the 1690s, a brand-new witch-hunt is brewing in Salem. This time, however, the target is the ruthless hacker who is trawling through the digital realm for salacious details to leak to the public. Teenager Lily Colson (Australian Odessa Young) and her friends, including sisters Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), along with transgender teen Bex (Hari Nef) are digital natives, used to navigating a treacherous, scandal-dogged social landscape both online and off. The town’s adults, though — such as School Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) and Em and Sarah’s next-door neighbor Nick (Joel McHale) — are not so deft, and chaos and violence soon erupt.
Assassination Nation wants to be Capital E Edgy, and there’s something perversely entertaining in its brazen insistence in pushing its perceived boundaries. The film opens with a barrage of self-imposed ‘trigger warnings’ cut together with blipvert-quick shots of later scenes: sex, violence, drug use, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and so on. It’s a bold statement of intent, but to what purpose?
It’s hard to say. For the lulz, as one character later muses? Assassination Nation is provocative, reveling in tits and gore, going for shock value at every possible opportunity, but its thesis is missing, presumed dead, and the clockwork-steady drip of nihilism and misanthropy soon grows tiresome. It’s not shocking; it’s boring — there’s no insight here, no depth of analysis, no anima. You’ve seen this before — the visual style comes courtesy of Fight Club (1999), the narrative structure from any number of sources where a stranger drags a conservative community’s dirty secrets kicking and screaming into the light. Given recent scandalous developments in his own life, perhaps Bryan Singer’s first feature, 1993’s Public Access, is the most appropriate touchstone. There’s also more than a dollop of The Purge (2013) in its DNA, as later in the film citizens take to the street en masse, masked and armed.
Writer and director Sam Levinson, an actor who has stepped behind the camera, has form for this kind of black satire. His 2011 feature debut, Another Happy Day, took the knife to the institution of family, using Ezra Miller’s caustic black sheep to tear apart the hypocrisies of the nuclear unit. Here, as there, the problem is never that Levinson doesn’t go far enough, it’s that he doesn’t go deep enough. His observations, accurate or not, are obvious, and he offers nothing we haven’t seen before.
And we’ve seen a lot. For sure, there are probably people out there who would be surprised to learn that teenagers sext and sleep with older men, that down-low jocks don’t want their dalliances with transgender women known to the public, that conservative politicians hide kinky secrets, that social media mob justice has a body count, that misogyny and homophobia are alive and well in Middle America, and on, and on, and on … but the people blind to the current cultural climate are not the ones who are going to be seeking this sort of film out, while its natural audience, jaded bastards that we are, are not liable to be shocked by its tepid theatrics.
Your mileage may vary, of course, and there’s some fun to be had watching Young and co. take back the night at gunpoint, and various awful people — counting actress/ Instagram model Bella Thorne’s blue-haired cheerleader — get hoist on their own petards as the film progresses. But Assassination Nation is just a catchy title looking for a reason to exist, and the movie it’s appended to doesn’t give it one.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Travis Johnson