As subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull but probably more bloody, Assassination Nation does nothing by halves. It is an extremely violent, overtly stylised and punchy piece of filmmaking that sets the tone early on – with the longest list of triggers warnings you have ever seen – and relentlessly smashes the zeitgeist. It’s here to be heard and for better or worse, subtlety does not enter its vocabulary. Assassination Nation a film impossible to forget. Give or take Suspiria, 2018 has found its most divisive film – but also, probably, one of its most (sadly) defining pictures, too.
In the city of Salem, Massachusetts, a computer hacking discovers and leaks the personal secrets of many, sending the residents on a murderous rampage that begins to revolve around a group of four friends. Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) end up desperately attempting to survive the destruction and chaos caused by the leaks in this bloody allegory of modern America’s hottest issues.
The Salem Witch Trials are repositioned for the 21st century in Sam Levinson’s heady concoction which explores a barrage of current socio-political concerns plaguing our world; it so brazenly tackles the likes of toxic masculinity, entitlement and privilege, hot LGBT+ issues and the sexualisation of (female) nudity without giving any of them the full scope to breathe or develop. It has so much to say but never carves out the space to articulate individual thoughts concisely, leading to a jam-packed, admirably ambitious if somewhat stodgy screenplay that places multiple fingers in multiple pies to mainly positive (if uneven) effect. It requires restraint and a tighter picture would have been curated had this been exercised – but to limit such contemporary themes for the sake of playing it safer seems redundant, especially at such a fraught time politically when we need to hear these messages amplified and uncompromised.
Levinson’s direction is bold and merciless, landing every punch and hit with force and gusto. From the long, intense one-take that documents a nail-biting siege to the popping Instagram-ready visuals and iconography, the film pushes the heavily-satirical elements of the movie to the absolute max. Although it begins to fall apart narratively towards the end, landing on a rushed conclusion, Levinson’s direction is at its strongest when the camera dances energetically around the violence and the carnage; there are some truly breathtaking images, no more so than during the final ‘face-off’ moment, with gut-clenching sequences that are elevated even further by Ian Hultquist’s immaculate score, breathing an unbelievable amount of intensity and fervour into proceedings.
Enhanced by Marcell Rév’s striking cinematography, it bursts with colour – America’s triadic scheme and neons galore – and an astonishing amount of detail. It is vibrant, hyper-stylised but there’s a point to it all: you stand up and take note, almost in a trance as the blood spews and anger escalates, always brought back to one of the plentiful themes that this picture is framed around. Assassination Nation is a visually-impressive feat that contrives the ambition of the screenplay to a much more well-rounded effect.
With a handful of ferocious performances bolstering the madness – particularly during that third act where it begins to fly too far off the rails – Hari Neg and Odessa Young (in particular) shine as two of the young women caught up in the metaphorical hangings. They each represent a different thematic facet; they are symbols of the digital age but individuals in their own right, easy to root for despite their blemishes. In that sense, they’re well-sketched; flawed female characters all too recognisable despite the heightened screen depiction. They sell panic and frustration, guilt and rage, vulnerability and strength, all these things and much, much more; my teenage years are not too far removed and while their experience is unbelievably exaggerated, I didn’t have to stretch too hard to relate to their insecurities and concerns, often dismissed by anyone outside the millennial generation. Our four leads do a tremendous job of illustrating this and really deserve the credit for carrying this bonkers lampoon.
Frequently hilarious and relentlessly bold in its visuals, Assassination Nation pushes the knife and gleefully twists as the minutes pass by, placing every social issue under the sun in its sights. While no doubt sloppy and frequently overwhelming to a fault, Assassination Nation has a lot on its mind and I would rather a film try and struggle than simply not try at all. It brazenly shakes you, sometimes through sheer force of will, and is desperate for your full attention. Maybe it’s exploitative – but it’s exploiting the right things. Female agency, gender dynamics, mob mentality and misogyny are just some of the touchstones that amalgamate to create one explosive satire that somewhat uncomfortably forces its way under your skin.
It’s very easy to describe Assassination Nation as a film that relies on ‘style over substance’, as I did in my initial review of this film, a mere few hours after first experiencing it – but that would dismiss the timely, potent themes and message it is exploring so boldly. When has a film, particularly one aimed at teens at this one is, crammed so many relevant themes into one melting pot of the millennial experience? It’s an angry, provocative portrait that, warts and all, works because of how daringly it pokes and prods and provokes with vicious intensity. This really is the film of the Trump-era and, during times as fraught as these, it’s important that we engage.
Also, does anyone know where I can buy a red PVC jacket? Asking… for a friend?
Assassination Nation is out now in UK cinemas after a run in US theatres earlier this year.