Assassination Nation is a movie packed with ideas but lacking the depth and focus to do those ideas justice. Director Sam Levinson appears to want to make a violent revenge movie for the #MeToo generation, not a terrible idea. Unfortunately, the finished product is sloppy, facile and undercooked. The idea is strong as are the performances but the idea has no time breathe beneath the preening, posturing, look-at-me filmmaking.
Odessa Young stars in Assassination Nation as Lily, a degenerate High Schooler with a beyond her years weariness in her voice and manner. In an opening voiceover, Lily lets us in on the plot and what we are walking in on her small town of Salem, and yes, that name is intentional. A mask wearing mob is out to murder Lilly and her friends, Bex (Hari Neff), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra). Why? Why, indeed.
Cut back to a week earlier, a hacker has begun attacking the private lives of Salem-ites. It begins with the conservative Mayor who is outed via the hack as a cross-dressing fetishist and eventually takes his own life in front of a baying crowd. Things spread to a nice-guy school principal (Colman Domingo) who, though his life is relatively mundane, is nearly run out of town because his text messages and photos of his family are taken out of context.
All while this is happening, Lilly and her secret man, a figure she calls Daddy, in text messages, are exchanging sexts and worrying about whether they could get hacked. When they do, things begin to get dangerous and when speculation turns to Lilly and her friends as the culprits behind the cyber-attacks, the witch hunt is on in ol’Salem. This mob isn’t coming with flaming torches however, they’re coming strapped and the witches, they’re coming strapped as well.
As I said at the start of this review, there are a number of good ideas in Assassination Nation. As the film progresses through its plot it occasionally rises to the level of satire that the filmmaker intends such as a scene late the movie where Lilly talks right to the camera and delivers a monologue on the faceless hordes who hide behind masks and attack people anonymously. The clear metaphor is twitter trolls hiding behind keyboards and for that moment, Assassination Nation is nearly as clever as the filmmakers believe it is.
Those moments are few and far between however as most of the movie is given over to art for the sake of art cuts, strange angles, words on screen text messaging, which has been a plague of this generation filmmakers, and plenty of ogling of Lilly and her friends that tends to fly in the face of the message I assume the film is intending to send. The movie throws accusations in all directions but doesn’t appear to have any self awareness.
Director Sam Levinson sexualizes Lilly the same way that the villainous characters do but has apparently no awareness of that fact. Instead, the film hides behind dialogue in which Lilly accuses other characters of sexualizing things that she doesn’t believe are sexual outside of context. The film wants Lilly in super short shorts and it wants to blame the audience for noticing that her shorts are ridiculously short.
Assassination Nation wants to be a righteous revenge movie for the #MeToo generation but it plays more like an exploitation of that idea than something aligned with #MeToo. That’s no fault of the young actresses, especially Odessa Young and Hari Neff whose performances are more fully realized than the many ideas the film has going on. Young is an assured young actress who performs with conviction and confidence. Neff meanwhile, is a minor revelation, a young actress with an effortless charisma.
I wish Assassination were as good as these young actresses make it appear. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad movie, it’s just a little too flashy for its own good. The flash and the glamour overwhelm the ideas. The ideas aren’t fully formed enough to overcome the flash and high style on display. Sam Levinson isn’t a bad director, but he’s overreaching and his taste for Harmony Korine style visuals and Purge style violence never coalesces into quite the movie he appears to want to make.
There is a desire for Assassination Nation to be both a message movie and an art movie and a hit movie and these desires clash in ways that end up satisfying none of those desires. There are good things in Assassination Nation but they’re all in competition with each other and in the end, little of the good stands out. In the end, the finished film is a mishmash of good ideas, a few bad ideas, and mixed messages that never cohere.
I have a feeling that Assassination Nation will inspire a lot of talk and that talk may end up being more valuable than the movie that inspired it. In some way I guess, that’s a point in the film’s favor. I just wish we were talking about a better movie. Do I recommend Assassination Nation? Yes and no. Yes in that it does cause conversation and these young actresses are quite good but no, because the film isn’t good enough as a movie for me to say spend your money on it.
We’re already having the conversations that this film wants to inspire and would have them if this movie didn’t exist. If you are intrigued by the plot and these young actresses then perhaps you might get something out of seeing Assassination Nation but it is a film that is not essential in any way. It doesn’t have much to contribute to the conversation it wishes to inspire.