Sam Levinson (director)
1h 48mins (length)
22 November 2018 (released)
03 December 2018
No story type selected- - Set in Salem, Massachusetts, the American town notorious for its 17th Century witch trials, writer and director Sam Levinson's blood-soaked satire Assassination Nation takes the theme of irrational persecution of young women and updates it for the age of social media and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The film centres on Lily Colson (Odessa Young), a precocious high schooler, and her best pals Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse). Just as teenage girls have always done, the quartet spend their days gossiping about boys and mocking schoolmates and adults who've committed the unforgivable crime of failing at being cool.
However, in 2018 their flirtations and vilifications are conducted via Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Snapchat - leaving a trail that will eventually cause carnage when a mysterious hacker exposes them to the public gaze.
Levinson expertly renders their world as one of self-absorbed teenage narcissism, magnified by modern technology. The girls are 'woke' and tolerant but hedonistic, lacking in perspective and spend more time taking the perfect selfie than stopping to think if sexting is a good idea - a feeling of social media overload that the director captures by skipping quickly from brightly lit scene to scene.
The hacker's leaks initially elicit shrugs and even enthusiasm, as the revelation that the town's conservative mayor (Cullen Moss) has a proclivity for cross-dressing is greeted with glee by the girls. Bex, who is transgender, is unmoved when he commits suicide as he was happy to allow his hypocrisy to harm her. More troubling to the clever but rebellious Lily is the evisceration of the kindly school Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) due to the sharing of intimate but innocent photographs of his six-year-old daughter.
By the time the hacker posts a huge data dump revealing half the town's personal secrets, they begin to worry about themselves - as Bex is in a secret relationship with the star of the High School football team and Lily has been sexting an older man she calls "daddy" behind her possessive boyfriend Mark's (Bill Skarsgard) back.
With wives attacking their husbands' mistresses, insecure schoolgirls seeking revenge on former pals with baseball bats, Lily and her friends fear for their lives as Salem descends into paranoia, recrimination, and bloody violence.
If the first half of the film is a satirical modern take on the teen movie - the second is a pastiche of the kind of gore-filled exploitation cinema beloved by Quentin Tarantino and young men. It's an interesting juxtaposition - feminist themes depicted in the style often criticised for its sexism - but one that doesn't quite hang together with the detailed high school satire that precedes it. The swiftness of the move from a vaguely plausible high school satire to firearm-fuelled carnage jars - even if you can see the point Levinson is trying to make about America's violent streak.
This also does the cast a disservice - as interesting performances from Young and Nef are cut short to focus on violent set-pieces that feature their characters as avatars rather than fully formed teenagers trying to cope with life in the social media age and a conservative small-town culture that views them with deep suspicion.
However, despite its flaws, Assassination Nation adeptly tackles the conflicts at the heart of Trump's America - including the destructive potential of the technology at the centre of our lives, toxic masculinity, and the culture clash between young people looking to shape the world as they would a well-composed selfie - and their uncomfortable elders hanging on to past certainties.