Assassination Nation: The Way Life Goes, by David Bax
Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation begins with a series of trigger warnings for things like “murder,” “attempted rape” and “fragile male egos,” each accompanied by a brief flash of footage from the movie we’re about to see. The tone here is clearly tongue-in-cheek and yet… Yeah, this movie kind of requires trigger warnings. Though Levinson can be strident, mean-spirited and sometimes incoherent, Assassination Nation is a satire that cuts distressingly close to the bone in its appraisal of the modern social/sexual world.
Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse and Abra play high school best friends in Salem, Anystate, USA (the witch hunt-evoking name of the town is just one example of Levinson’s kitchen sink semiotics). When an anonymous hacker starts leaking the entire contents of various townsfolk’s personal lives, Internet searches and text histories, the good people of Salem, stirred up by their own seething hypocrisies and insecurities, begin to turn on each other, eventually aiming all of their indignation and ire at our core four. It’s like a slightly more plausible (and, somehow, slightly more terrifying) Needful Things.
Levinson taps into the post-millennial malaise and abandon exemplified by ascendant musical subgenres like emo rap as well as the film’s very score by Ian Hultquist, a sort of industrial trip-hop dirge-house. His ambitious but transparent attempts to capture this milieu visually include tricks like dividing the widescreen frame into a vertical triptych, like we’re looking at three iPhones at once. Later, though, this self-consciousness gives way to more inspired, sardonic images, like a shot of a smog-clouded sun shining through an American flag while a jet leaves chemtrails in the background.
Assassination Nation, unlike too many teensploitation flicks, adopts the children’s point of view instead of the parents’, sidestepping the scaremongering tropes of pearl-clutching, kids-gone-wild movies like Thirteen. This quartet of girls is beyond that; they’re so self-aware that it sometimes seems as if they know they’re characters in a movie. Then again, in a generation of constant self-documentation, maybe that’s just how young people act now. In any case, that’s not really the point. Or, rather, the point is that technology isn’t the point. Social media hasn’t changed our values. It’s just dragged their worst traits up to the surface. When Young’s character argues that “Nudity is not inherently sexual,” she’s both stating the obvious and combating every slut-shaming Instagram comment ever made.
Of course, Instagram (and Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook) is not real life. But the anger and hatred that courses through these apps is very real indeed. Assassination Nation‘s premise hinges on spilling that violent malevolence into the IRL space (or the movie’s slightly exaggerated approximation of it), replicating the Internet’s anonymity by putting the frothing townsfolk in Purge-style masks when they devolve into an angry mob. Still, Levinson has more than score-settling on his mind. Nef’s character may actually speak the movie’s thesis out loud when, early on, she says of a homophobic bigot outed as a closet cross-dresser, “I think you can disagree with him and still feel empathy.”
Predominantly, Levinson agrees with her. Yet the whole movie has an undercurrent of doubt as to whether human beings are able to live up to her philosophy. Satire is usually associated with humor but Assassination Nation is an unrelentingly sad and fatalistic version of the format. By putting our virulent online discourse under a magnifying glass, the film enlarges it. But, as might a disturbed boy with a colony of ants at his disposal, it also sets it on fire.