Starring: Odessa Young (High Life), Hari Nef (Transparent), Suki Waterhouse (The Bad Batch), Abra, Colman Domingo (Selma), Bill Skarsgaard (It), Joel McHale (Community), Bella Thorne (Blended)
Writer/Director: Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day)
Runtime: 1 hour 48 minutes
Release Date: 21 September (US), 23 November (UK)
I’d say even the most tech-literate of us don’t fully comprehend the power of the Internet. Since it became practically a human right to have access to it, its presence has enlarged everything about human society and social interaction for both good and ill. It can be used as a tool to connect and educate, but it can be just as easily used to silence and destroy, and many people still haven’t caught on to how their littlest actions online can have grave consequences on others. Assassination Nation is the first movie to tackle the social media generation that clearly understands it, and uses it to paint a grim but heartfelt picture of where it could all end up.
It’s hard to pin down Assassination Nation using the typical Hollywood shorthand buzzwords, but if I had to I’d describe it as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets The Purge”. Right from the word go, opening the movie with literal trigger warnings for all the messed-up stuff that is about to happen, it’s clear that this is a movie that’s going to pull no punches. The plot is essentially a modernised take on classic tales of women accused of sin such as The Crucible or The Scarlet Letter, but instead of witchcraft and adultery we have doxxing and…well, maybe not everything has changed. The story world may feel highly exaggerated, but at its core this is a more accurate reflection of contemporary high school than most films, and it uses stylization to enhance reality rather than paint a false image. The storytelling isn’t always neat, with a lot of character development brushed past as the plot constantly ups the stakes, but the core messages of the film are always clear. Even as it reaches its finale, which comes all too quickly, Assassination Nation’s final moments feel like a more accurate reflection of our current times than any serious drama, and concludes with the most bizarre but apt end credits sequence since The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.
The four female leads of Assassination Nation are all perfectly cast and their chemistry together is through the roof, but the real standouts here are Odessa Young and Hari Nef. Young has to carry most of the film with some really heavy subject matter and she pulls it all off effortlessly. She has the difficult task of playing a character that often does the wrong thing but still comes off as relatable; considering empathy and forgiveness are key themes of the film, it’s damn key she nailed this part. Meanwhile, Nef is clearly having a ball playing essentially an exaggerated version of her real-life persona, but she still brings a lot of pathos to the character without ever turning her into a tragic victim. In fact, more often than not she has the upper hand and is brazen in her force of personality; in effect, the exact opposite of every trans character cliché and one we need to see more of. Suki Waterhouse and Abra get a little less to do, lacking the focused character subplots Young and Nef get to play with, but they inject high amounts of personality into the proceedings and the film wouldn’t quite be the same without them. Most of the other characters are caricatures without much development, but they serve their metaphorical purposes well as personified examples of every toxic subset of our culture. Bella Thorne is especially good as the typical airhead cheerleader but with a twist, whilst Joel McHale’s subversive performance means I’ll never be able to watch Community the same way again.
Director Sam Levinson (yes, son of Barry) reveals himself here as a director to watch with this sophomore feature effort, clearly laying down a distinct aesthetic that immediately sets him apart from his contemporaries. That’s not to say it’s entirely new visually, as the film employs indie film staples like a neon-heavy saturated colour palette and cinematography rife with stylish long takes, but Levinson uses these ideas to do more than just make the film seem more expensive. Instead, they are used with purpose and effect, as made clear in the film’s standout sequence involving a long take that darts in and out and around a home in a doll’s house fashion. Further to this, the movie uses its violence and gore to great effect, showing these horrific acts in all their details but without ever feeling like sick self-indulgence. There is a point to the alarming amount of violence on display, and it never feels like our heroes are enjoying themselves doing it; in the world they live in, it’s just what they have to do. The film also employs excellent use of popular music, with a soundtrack that reflects what modern high schoolers today would listen to rather than blaring out the overused rock tunes one might expect.
Assassination Nation is not a film for everyone. It is dark, violent, discomforting and often abhorrent, but it certainly isn’t false. It takes the world we know, blows it up to 11, shoves it back in our faces and asks us to deal with it. It has no clear answers to the problems it highlights, but it’s not the movie’s job to tell us how to fix issues like online privacy and toxic mob mentality; if the answers were that obvious, we would have fixed these issues long ago. But even in all its depravity, Assassination Nation somehow manages to remain hopeful and inspiring. For all it has to say about what is wrong with the world, it keeps a glimmer of hope alive that we can fix it, and in this day and age we need that kind of precautious optimism. If you struggle to even read Twitter without questioning how humanity ended up here, maybe sit this one out. But if you want to see a troupe of badass intersectional feminists fight back against the toxicity of online culture, this is the movie you have been waiting for.
FINAL VERDICT: 9/10