Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Assassination Nation is a loud, violent, unfocused social satire. Its main target is the mob mentality of social media which it uses to explore a wide variety of topics. It does not always work. There are times when writer/director Sam Levinson seems confused by his own arguments. But when it connects, it hits hard. It is entertaining and very energetic, if occasionally difficult to watch. I admire its angry, sloppy, zeal.
The protagonist is Lily, a high school senior who spends her days gossiping with her three best friends and sexting with her boyfriend and an older man listed as “Daddy” in her phone. Soon, a mysterious hacker begins leaking the townspeople’s private information online where it is immediately enthusiastically devoured by everyone. Before long, the finger of blame points at the girls and the town looks to mete out vigilante justice. It should not surprise you in the least that the name of their town is Salem.
The desire to metaphorically burn these young women at the stake by the mostly male Salem mob is just one of the many (unsubtle) ways Assassination Nation critiques contemporary society. It uses satire like a machete to slice through things such as toxic masculinity, slut shaming, misogyny and the self-righteousness some seem to feel when they sit behind a keyboard. His main characters are probably intentionally stereotypical teenagers. Though I was unable to engage with them as people, that approach does make it easier to use them to attack those same stereotypes.
A bloody high school set thriller is a fitting place to criticize social media culture and the role it plays in creating expectations in young men and women as well as shaping their self-images. Lily and her friends, Bex, Sarah and Em, have a lot more to deal with than homework, exams and which cute boy is checking them out. Their burgeoning sexuality makes them temporarily fascinating to boys and terrifying to adults. Of course, neither group sees them as more than an object, a challenge they are not equipped to handle. That is until the end, when they literally fight back.
Though the tone is heightened, the action is taken pretty seriously. This is real, albeit exaggerated, not a comic book or videogame. That sense of danger is a little out of step with the rest of the movie which comes off more like a very dark comedy. The final stretch Levinson has built to is unfortunately disappointing. He sidelines several of his themes in favor of clichés that slightly undermine the satire. I think he was trying to turn them on their heads, but he does not really succeed.
Assassination Nation throws so much in to its 102 minute running time (without the end credits) that it feels inevitable it would result in a bit of a mess. It has a lot to say; maybe too much. But the parts that work mark Sam Levinson as someone to watch. Making a movie like this, a violent, funny, topical satire, with conviction in its message, is tough to do. The fact that Levinson comes as close to being successful at it as he does, in only his second outing as a director, is quite impressive.
3¼ out of 5
Odessa Young as Lily
Hari Nef as Bex
Suki Waterhouse as Sarah
Abra as Em
Joel McHale as Nick
Bill Skarsgård as Mark
Written and Directed by Sam Levinson