With his fevered, stylish Assassination Nation, writer-director Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day) has attempted a revenge-thriller manifesto, a sort of splatter-gore Medium post on subjects including Insta culture, selfie politics, mob justice, sexism, transphobia and the turned-on viciousness of women-hating internet doxxers.
Its first act of violence, which comes surprisingly late, gets memed and hashtagged before the blood and brain matter has hit the floor. Before the extended dudes-on-the-hunt finale, which finds our teen girlfriend heroes stalked by their whole murder-minded town, Levinson stages sharply performed monologues and debates about issues of the day. How much painful effort goes into the creation of self-shot hawt n00dz? Why do so many people assume that nudity itself must always be sexual? Just how much empathy is owed a family values politician whose life gets destroyed by the exposure of his online habits?
As a hacker exposes a small town’s secrets, Levinson’s charismatic quartet — including Odessa Young, Abra, Suki Waterhouse and Transparent’s Hari Nef – persevere in their hyperconnected online lives, engaging in flirtations and hookups that would prove scandalous if revealed. Levinson’s satiric targets are not the hacked, the people whose lying, cheating and shit-talking goes viral. It’s instead aimed at everyone who feigns outrage, who pretends that if all the data on their cellphones leaked, they would have no reason for shame.
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So, Assassination Nation is timely, aggressively so. Despite the killing-spree craziness of its final reels, much of the film is a how-the-kids-live-now potboiler, replete with guileless dirty talk and immense bedroom windows that seem to have been installed with peeping in mind. While sometimes messy, this material is emotionally resonant and cinematically alive. Levinson adores attention-grabbing technique, but he applies his overhead shots or upside-down pans to the project of illustrating these teens’ senses of self. These teens get through their days by performing their own awesomeness, by acting as if they’re the star of their own movie, a point literalized when Nef’s character, a trans woman, snaps her fingers to jump-start a blazing squad-walk on the soundtrack of the film we’re watching.
Young, as lead teen Lily, aces the coquettish stuff, including a tortured text-and-selfie relationship with a married dude who calls himself “Daddy.” She’s more interesting when speechifying, lecturing the high school principal about the pressures facing girls, or when she’s shattered, as in an exhilarating long-take shot where Lily weeps in her bedroom as her parents confront her about her secrets.
The protracted slaughter of the finale doesn’t quite hold to the narrative logic of the rest of the film. Rather than an exploitation flick with some real-world themes, it’s a melodrama with an exploitation ending. The suspense, for much of the running time, lies in uncertainty about which exploitation subgenre Assassination Nation will settle into. A coming-attractions-style montage in the first minutes, labeled “Trigger Warning,” lets you know right away that there will be blood — plus attempted rape and “fragile male egos.” Despite the title, there’s no movie-style assassins onhand, and despite the town being named “Salem,” there’s no accusations of witchcraft, though both archetypes inform the terror to come. For all that, I found power in Levinson’s vicious catharsis, as his fashion-forward kill squad faces down an up-to-date reimagining of villagers with torches. Here, it’s the online mob made of flesh and blood.
Especially blood. What matters more than thematic coherence here is seeing the old rape-revenge story refreshed and expanded in its moral outrage. Levinson and his teens indict — and blow the brains out of — a subtler and more pervasive suite of violations.