Going into this film, I almost went in totally free of any expectations. I had not seen any trailers for the film, nor read any reviews. The only things that I had seen were a short clip from the film (which impressed me with the depth of ideas behind the characters involved) and the poster. I had also seen it referred to as a mashup between “Mean Girls” and “The Purge”, and it was this quote that I believe ultimately sold me on the film that it could be something I may enjoy. So whilst I had no expectations on whether the film was going to be good or bad, I was expecting a satire of some form, heading towards black comedy. I was expecting it to be a little quirky too. However, I was not prepared for what “Assassination Nation” ended up delivering.
The film is set in modern day Salem, where we follow around Lily and her three best friends. They are typical high school students; obsessed with their phones and social media platforms, totally desensitised in regards to the potential danger and damage that could be inflicted on them, if any of the photos or meaningless, mean spirited gossiping ever got out into the rest of the world, outside of the protection of their bubble of friendship. This is ultimately what happens when a massive data hack causes half of the town of Salem to have all of their photos, text messages, social media posts and the like exposed for all to see. The reaction to the hack is huge as secrets are revealed, betrayals felt, affairs exposed and the amount of naked skin on show is unthinkable. The lives of all in Salem are forever changed. With the town now like a small war zone of violence and revenge, the public eventually turn on the person who is believed to have created the hack: Lily. From here, Lily and her friends must attempt to stay alive from the residents of their town who, just from a baseless accusation, are intent on killing them or making them pay.
Wow! Was this film intense! This is the only film that I can think of this year, where I sat through the majority of it with my mouth agape. I was so stunned by everything I was seeing. When the film initially started though, I almost turned it off. We are thrust into these high school girl's vapid lifestyles full of selfies and social media posts, and I was hating every second of it. It moved so fast, and visually the film was at times split into sections representing instagram posts and the like. It is a very full on opening, and I just didn't think the film was going to be for me. I cannot stand social media platforms, and the lengths people go to to get a “like” on a post, or the importance they put on such a thing. I am so glad that I stuck with it though because when the initial hacks start, I understood that this film was definitely for me, and that it was going to deal with issues of this lifestyle so prevalent today, that I am very big on myself.
“Assassination Nation” is not a celebration of this lifestyle, rather is an angry condemnation of it, or at the very least, it is a morality tale screaming out to be heard. The phrase “screaming out” is actually very apt in regards to the film because it is anything but subtle. The filmmakers are using sledge hammer tactics to bang home their points, which is a technique I normally do not respond to, but works so well here. I suppose the reason it works as well as it does for me, is because it is attacking ideals that I myself are not a fan of. I also understand that because of the way the story is told, that it is not going to be for everyone, and it may be the exact reason people end up disliking the film. It is an angry, bloody, aggressive, and very loud assault on not only the meaningless social media lifestyle, but also against today's complete political correctness where everyone has a platform to get upset or offended about everything.
It is no mistake or coincidence that the film takes place in Salem, as the filmmakers are alluding to the fact that the “outing” of so-called depraved or malicious people, is akin to the town's famous witch hunts from long ago. This is shown perfectly in the scene when the school principal is hacked and subsequently branded a paedophile because he has innocent photos of his child taking a bath. The social media outrage to these photos is quick and vicious, and also holds no basis in the truth. He has had his “trial by media” and these “people” have deemed him to be a criminal. All the man has done is take a photo of his child while having an innocent bath, just like almost every other parent has every done before him, but this faceless gang has branded him a pervert for such a deed. What is interesting is that Lily is one of the only people who stands up for the principal, but is shouted down by the greater mob, so her voice is no longer heard. From these early moments, “Assassination Nation” continues to get darker and darker, not to mention incredibly bloody, but these are moments I will leave for everyone else to experience untarnished.
Whilst I was a big fan of what the film was trying to say, I was also very impressed by it from a cinematic standpoint. It has been bravely and believably performed by all of the leads, with Australian Odessa Young standing out as Lily, but I was equally impressed by the performance from Hari Nef, who plays Bex. She has an emotionally painful scene towards the end when she is about to be lynched, and is just outstanding in this moment. Joel McHale also equips himself very well in a non-comedic role. From a visual standpoint, “Assassination Nation” has been very stylishly lensed by cinematographer Marcell Rev, with ample assistance from production designer Michael Grasley and costume designer Rachel Dainer-Best. This is an uber stylish film! One amazing scene that I can not fail to mention is set in a multi-storey building where Lily and her friends are hiding out. In one, very long shot the camera continuously circles the building as we watch what the girls are doing inside the house, as they are totally unaware of the people outside attempting to get into it. My description of the shot does not do it any justice because it is an astonishing technical achievement to pull of such a shot and for it to tell so much of the story, instead of being just a cool shot.
“Assassination Nation” was easily the biggest surprise for me in 2018. While I struggled with the opening ten minutes of the film, by the time the end credits starting rolling, I was totally in love with it, whilst also being shocked and astonished by where it ultimately goes. Writer/director Sam Levinson (who happens to be the son of director Barry Levinson) has created an amazing film. It is a film for its time, angry in its message, and I can see in the future it having a massive cult following. While I will not guarantee everyone will like the film, I cannot recommend “Assassination Nation” enough.