Fear of shattered privacy. Aggression and bigotry stemming from deep-seated insecurities. The fetishization of the female figure, leading to the suppression of the artistic expression of the naked female form. The potential outcome of arming oneself, literally, against the patriarchy. The depiction of the inability for modern punitive powers from preventing internet trolls. And, more or less, a The Purge scenario.
This is only a handful of the disparate ideas tackled in Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, a film about four teenage girls (Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra) stuck in the middle of a city in existential crisis after a hacker leaks half of the city’s personal phone data.
The fallout from this event is rapid and rapidly approaches fantastical realism. The FBI is mentioned, but is never directly involved in, the devolution of the city into a chaos that culminates in armed, masked figures rioting in the streets in search for the person accused of executing the leak. Instead of any outside force actively fighting this scenario, the city is left to its own distorted devices.
It could never truly happen, not as depicted. Levinson is attempting a massive, wide-net-casting catharsis, but the purgation of modern American woes becomes increasingly difficult as the film folds into its fantasy world. And the weighty message that accompanies the film’s disastrously overblown climax comes across hollow when stacked against the sheer amount of timely thematic threads that Levinson jams into the first half of the film.
This is not to say that Assassination Nation is without its wickedly lurid charm. The film opens with a series of “Trigger Warnings” to warn audiences of just what dastardly and perverse goings-on they will witness during the next two hours. It’s a braggadocios way for Levinson to say he’s not afraid to push buttons, but it also primes the audience for a specific energy that the film lives up to.
The first act is told from a place of pure kinetic energy. First, there are the biting words in Young’s voiceover narration. “They only want pieces and parts. They want to pick and choose,” she says in explanation of how the world views, sexualizes, and commodifies young women. Second, there is the stylish use of three-panel storytelling, each panel fading in and out of different narrative threads that take place during a party. It is a technique that is weaponized alongside stark colors and a thrumming soundtrack.
By the time we reach the final act, this energy in performance and style is replaced with gunpowder energy. There is an exquisitely-shot home invasion sequence, which is compelling not on a narrative level but on a cinematography level. But mainly the climax is a flurry of geographically confusing edits and muzzle flashes.
The story, too, devolves with the style. A narrative about four girls trying to buck the system in a contemporary America crippled by cyber attacks and political incivility is foregone for the sake of a fantasy of cathartic aggression against misogyny and tyranny. The nuance is stripped away with the story. The misogyny, initially depicted as institutional and banal, becomes exaggerated. The villainous men are caricatures who have been stockpiling military-grade weapons for this very type of crisis. Exaggeration for the sake of satire is all well and good, but this climax eliminates much of the satirical conversation that had come before it.
Assassination Nation is, through the excellent eye of cinematographer Marcell Rev, a rowdy exhibition of beautifully-staged ugliness. When things get really ugly, though, the script loses sight of the many lines of communication that it established earlier in the film. The film is like Spring Breakers meets The Purge but with more on its mind. Yet its ultimate message does not live up to its lofty satiric ambitions.
Assassination Nation: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)