This has been a good time for righteously angry films. With things like The Purge series revelling in the anger people are feeling in the age of Trump, it feels like a good time for socially conscious action films. One thing that was missing from these films though was taking the viewpoint of women. This is where Assassination Nation comes in. This is a film that will work wonders for its intended audience, an action film for the #MeToo era and whilst it is a powerful, cathartic film, I don’t think it quite works as a whole.
The film takes place in the town of Salem (making the allegory to the witch trials all the more blatant) and focuses on a group of teenage girls living in the town which is undergoing a severe hack, starting with politicians and teachers, with half the town eventually getting hacked. With all the secrets coming out, a lot of them taking some sexual form, it eventually leads to an all out riot in Salem, with the girls having to take up arms to defend themselves. Now in terms of thematic weight, there is a lot to unpack here. Right from the opening scene, the film makes it clear that it will be pushing all sorts of taboos and this is where the film shines. There are interesting conversations in the film about things like the way society always sexualises nudity, the way men view any form of sexualised imagery of women as a license for them to be leery and creepy towards women, the toxic masculinity that makes it so things like being gay, trans or being someone who is in love with someone who is trans are denigrated and vilified. There are also interesting ideas raised about the nature of privacy in the online age and how easily it is for privacy to be invaded by people who just do it for laughs. It makes complete sense that the hacks in the film originated through 4Chan as, as things like GamerGate have shown, pool together enough toxic men online and there will be a culture that places blame for everything on women, with men unwilling to own up to their own mistakes. As the film goes on, it becomes more of a rallying cry for teenage girls not to stand for the way society treats them and these elements of the film are what give it its power.
The problem I had with the film was the characters. For a film that has a lot of focus on how character relationships change in relation to the hack, I thought most of the characters were forgettable. Odessa Young is probably the most well written character, allowed to show the dumb mistakes she makes and her regrets over them and how she feels those mistakes do not justify the treatment she received and she makes her character complex and justified in her anger. Hari Nef meanwhile is great at showing the particular pressures faced by trans teenagers and her anger towards men who decry her existence being revealed to be hypocrites is entertaining, but towards the end, she does become something of a damsel in distress. Let me take a moment though to acknowledge that it is great to see a trans character played by a trans performer and how bad it is that this is something that has to be credited rather than being the norm. Suki Waterhouse and Abra meanwhile are complete non-presences in the film and, to be honest, there were a few points in the film where I forgot about them. There are interesting, creepy performances from Bill Skarsgard and Joel McHale, representing two sides of male lust and ego, whilst the rest of the cast, including Anika Noni Rose, Bella Thorne, Colman Domingo and Maude Apatow are completely wasted, given nothing interesting to work with.
On a technical level, the film is very impressive. Considering that this is the second film of Sam Levinson, the level of technical competence (helped by him being the son of Barry Levinson) on display is excellent, particularly a long take showing a home invasion. The filming of the action meanwhile is suitably brutal and, in some ways, pathetic, seeing the men of the town pretend to be big damn heroes when they’re just creeps using the situation to boost their egos, acting as an indictment of toxic masculinity. Whilst some of the aesthetic choices were not to my personal taste (such as the editing, the music and the colour scheme in the first half of the film), I can recognise that these elements were well executed and there will be an audience for this style, I just know it’s not for me.
Overall, Assassination Nation is a solid film, but one that didn’t quite work as well as intended. Whilst the thematic weight of the film is strong and there are a lot of great technical decisions made, I found that I couldn’t really connect with any of the characters (although I do recognise that may be because of me rather than the film) and, as a result, some of the power in the final act of the film was lost, although that doesn’t detract from the catharsis and power that the film does have.
My Rating: 3.5/5