As I try to review or explain— or even summarize — Assassination Nation, I keep coming back to a list of the things that it’s not.
It is definitely not, for example, a feminist film. Although it might flirt with notions of justice and social issues in its explicit spectacle, it’s not exactly a subversive film, either. Despite a few vaguely encouraging girl power moments toward the end, there’s really not anything close enough to a message — or even a coherent thesis — that makes you feel like the dizzying, colorful, hyper-violent explosions of America’s id onscreen are working toward any greater purpose. Or point.
And yet it’s not a purely debased work of exploitation or provocation, either. It certainly feels that way in the film’s opening moments as writer/director Sam Levinson gleefully flings his audience and characters into an extended trigger warning (yes, that’s what the film itself calls this segment) that tears through brief scenes depicting topics ranging from toxic masculinity to transphobia. It’s an introduction that might be aiming for irony, but feels just lurid enough to inspire genuine concern that the action you’ve just been winkingly warned about might not skewer these issues, so much as indulge in them. Once each of these incidents actually starts to unfold in the context of the story, though, there’s always something about them — be it in the conversation between the characters, or in the way the events themselves are portrayed — that suggests Levinson was is at least attempting to do something more with Assassination Nation than put a bunch of fictional representations of vulnerable people who do actually suffer this kind of violence through the same old shit, purely for the purposes of entertaining those who don’t ever have to consider or fear these problems.
I’m going with “attempting” as opposed to anything stronger here, because I am sure that I haven’t missed any deeper meaning in this film. Another thing that Assassination Nation really isn’t is subtle in its storytelling. Four teenage girls who live fraught but potentially survivable lives in a comfortably middle-class suburb quickly find themselves the target of brutal mob violence when a hacker begins to expose’s the town’s digital footprints and secrets. While the first hack begins schadenfreude-listically enough, with a right-wing anti-LGBTQA politician being exposed for his own hypocrisy, further exposures aren’t so morally clear-cut. Soon Lily Colson (Odessa Young), the unofficial leader of the group, becomes one of the targets, as her friends Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef), and Em (Abra) all find themselves caught in the crosshairs. The whole town does, just as Lily explicitly states in her opening voiceover, want them dead. You don’t set a plot like this in Salem, of all places, if you’re going for nuance and an understated exploration of moral grey areas and complexities that you’re trusting your audience to grasp on their own.
What results from this highly combustible social media-fueled combination of outrage and flat-out hatred isn’t exactly an indictment. There’s definitely no editorializing or preaching about internet mobs and their fallout here. There’s also no particularly pointed humor or challenge against social mores, which means that Assassination Nation can’t be definitely hailed as a satire, either. And yet it clearly does aspire to be something other than pure schlock. It might not be the Heathers of its time in terms of purpose, execution, and reception. I do wonder if today’s teenagers will walk away from it feeling the same way I do about something Jawbreaker, which was middlingly received at the time, and somewhat disregarded as overindulgent and exploitative, but was embraced by a younger audience who were hungry for something sloppy, weird, and improper that we could grapple with on our own messy and increasingly complex terms. I did come away from the film thinking that my younger self would have found a sneering underground thrill that I would have felt no need to justify to anyone, where my presently aging self was inching toward ambivalence.
Over a week after seeing Assassination Nation, multiple conversations about it with fellow film critics at TIFF (where it enjoyed its international premiere last week) and almost 700 words into this review, I’m still not exactly sure what I do think about it. I know that I can vouch for the talent involved, particularly the four leads, who are consistently excellent whether they’re discussing the politics of empathy or wielding makeshift weapons in red PVC trenchcoats. (If there is any fairness in this world, we’ll look back on this as Hari Nef’s big breakthrough role.) I know that I can’t, in good conscience, argue against the fears that people who face any of the film’s initial trigger warning in real life on a daily basis will have. , Or that they’ll be assuaged by the actual content of the film. There’s a part of me that still feels uneasy about all of that myself. But I also know that I’m not necessarily angry or offended by what I saw — or exhausted by it, which is my default emotion for films that posture like they’re somehow brilliantly subversive when they’re just perpetuating real-life violence and inequality instead of challenging it in any meaningful way these days. At the end, I almost felt a bit of rush, in fact.
I might not be able to tell you what exactly Assassination Nation is, but the one thing I can confidently say is that it’s not easy to forget or dismiss.