Assassination Nation (2018)
Written & Directed by Sam Levinson
You will probably hate this movie. I can’t say I liked it, but it certainly was a terrible mess like I expected it to be. After seeing the trailer in 2018, I was worried we had another #Horror on our hands, one of the worst “Hello, fellow kids” movies I’ve seen in recent memory. Assassination Nation is nowhere near that bad. At its worst, the film is a little overly ambitious. It’s heavily preachy & on the nose in the final scene, which irked me a little. I think the same themes could have been communicated in just as clear but more subtle manner.
The film is narrated by its protagonist Lily Colson (Odessa Young), an 18-year-old high school senior living in Salem, Massachusetts. She gives us a trigger warning over a provocative montage, telling us the film contains everything from bullying to sexual content to homophobia and attempted murder. Lily is part of a group of female friends that includes Bex and sisters Em and Sarah. They are wrapped up in their lives, consisting of talking about sexual exploits and how annoying the adults in their town are. Bex, who is transgender, hooks up with Diamond, one of the school’s football players, who proceeds to order her not to tell anyone. The girls console Bex while Lily pivots between her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård) and Nick (Joel McHale), a father she used to babysit for. Then everything explodes.
An anonymous hacker leaks the private messages and photo of Salem’s Mayor Bartlett, outing him as a gay man who is into crossdressing. Bartlett has campaigned on a robust anti-LGBTQ platform and so is pilloried by his constituents and receiving no sympathy from those he helped marginalized. The hacks continue with the high school principal, where photos of his two-year-old daughter in the bathtub lead to him being labeled a pedophile and is pressured to resign. Then half of Salem gets hacked, which leads to all-out chaos erupting in the town. Everyone starts wearing masks when they are out and about to remain anonymous, unlinked to the tawdry revelations surrounding them. Lily discovers Nick has been hacked, and the nudes she sent to him are now being identified. Things get very bad.
I think there is an excellent movie in here; it just struggles to get out. The cinematography in Assassination Nation is gorgeous. Levinson kept cinematographer Marcell Rev for his HBO series Euphoria which is an excellent decision. They capture a sort of over-saturated darkness that I think sums up a lot about how our current era feels. The internet has led to a sense of deep mental frying for me, and I’m sure others at times. So the way this movie is shot gets across that tone so well. There is a masterfully shot single take crane sequence filmed from the exterior of Em & Sarah’s house. The audience is very aware of the masked men slowly surrounding the house to exact revenge on the girls while they are oblivious until it is too late. Levinson and Rev build the tension so well in this scene.
My annoyance was with how the film was marketed on its last 20 minutes. This is the part of the movie where the girls come out guns blazing for revenge, and it is very satisfying. Levinson walks a fragile line between overly glamorizing violence and showing the chilling reality around it. This is where my issues with the movie really began. I get that Levinson was trying to say that the Zoomer generation was born into a sick & twisted world where they are blamed for the flaws. Lily’s monologue at the end of the film is very straightforward. I think I had difficulty understanding what this movie was trying to be. I’m okay with genre-blending, but this was not well mixed. It is gorgeously stylized in certain moments, and in others, it drags with long scenes of dialogue that are either way too on the nose or just feel repetitive.
When Assassination Nation gets too self-serious, I found myself annoyed. I think it has many great points about social media culture and the hypocrisy of adults as they indulge in their own kinks privately while shaming others. When it’s at its best, the film is finding wry humor in these situations or leaning into the horrific, absurdist elements it builds up. If less was said through character exposition and we had more being communicated visually, this could have been something phenomenal. As it stands, it is certainly worth a watch. It’s made me curious about Euphoria, which I am assuming is more grounded than this. But I would like to see Levinson return to these themes, a little more refined and focused. He has something important to say but hasn’t said it perfectly quite yet.