Saturday, November 30, 2019

Girl Week 2019: Assassination Nation

Day 5 of Girl Week 2019 got away from me, technically. However, I'm on the east coast in the U.S. You know what? It's still Day 5 on the west coast, so that's the time we're using. Don't look at me that way. Just go with it.

Directed by Sam Levinson.
2018. Rated R, 110 minutes.
Odessa Young
Hari Nef
Suki Waterhouse
Bella Thorne
Bill Skarsgård
Joel McHale
Colman Domingo
Anika Noni Rose
Maude Apatow

Cullen Moss

The film opens with a montage of trigger warnings that show brief scenes depicting topics including bullying, blood, abuse, classism, death, drinking, drug use, sexual content, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, guns, nationalism, racism, kidnapping, murder, attempted murder, the male gaze, giant frogs, sexism, swearing, torture, violence, gore, weapons, and fragile male egos. -

That blurb is quite literal, and immediately, the movie had me hooked. I had to see if what followed would live up to this amazing setup. We start finding out by meeting Lily (Young) and her three bestest buddies Bex (Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Waterhouse). Those last two are sisters, by the way. They're high school students in the ominously named town of Salem. They spend their days either on social media, or engaging in the sort of debauchery that garners lots of attention on social media. Their entire school, and indeed, the entire world seems to operate this way. While on the self-destructive side, it just seems to be the way the world turns. The first domino to fall in setting this entire universe on its ear is when the town's ultra-conservative Mayor Bartlett (Moss) has his phone hacked. The person responsible released pictures to the media of the mayor engaging in some pretty raunchy behavior, including cavorting with male prostitutes. Next on the hitlist is the head of the girl's school, Principal Turrell (Domingo). When his phone is hacked it is revealed that one of the pictures on it is of his six-year-old daughter in the bathtub. Immediately, people brand him a pedophile. Townsfolk begin taking up arms and going after anyone they think is the hacker, or anyone they think has done them wrong. Things really hit home for our heroines when Lily's phone is hacked. Let's just say things get pretty bad.

All of the things promised in that opening montage do indeed make an appearance. However, the film is patient enough not to rush into those things. Instead, it pulls off the trick of slow-boiling the plot while keeping us interested in the day-to-day affairs of four vapid teenage girls. They exhibit the all too typical short-sightedness of teens. They feel that whatever lies ahead for them couldn't possibly be better than nonsense they're doing right now. And all of it must be recorded, posted, or streamed live. It's a commentary on where society has gone. We're living our real lives to improve our fake ones, the personas we've created online, and the two are quickly becoming one. The movie also takes "cancel culture" to its absurdist, yet logical, extremes. Instead of just saying in a post that someone is "cancelled" for one discretion or another, the people in Salem take it several steps further and try to physically destroy the guilty parties. This volatile mixture of mob mentality, intolerance of mistakes, and downright indignation drives the movie down some dark streets. Director Sam Levinson does it in a highly stylized way with lots of jarring edits, slimy characters, and over-the-top violence. This movie is the baby that would be born if The Purge and Spring Breakers ever hooked up.

While the proliferation of internet culture in real life is one of the movie's focuses, another is misogyny. Look back at that list detailing the opening montage. A number of those things speak directly to this. Overall, the film does a good job at tackling the issue and works its way into a girl-power flick of the most disturbing sort. The shortcoming, however, is that it bites off more than it can chew. It takes aim at a ton of society's ills, but while some get deep dive treatment, others are barely touched by the narrative paintbrush. This might be the source of one observation I have come across. Some have said that this material would be better handled in the hands of a female director. Maybe. I get where people are coming from, but this ignores one key factor: Levinson also wrote the movie. Granted, writing something doesn't automatically make someone qualified to direct it, but it does mean they intimate knowledge of the material. The question then becomes whether the weak link is Levinson the writer, or Levinson the director. Weakness is relative, however, because while flawed, it is a very strong effort on both fronts.

The cast is another iffy factor. They're not bad, but none of the four girls do enough to be the standout. The actors struggle to bring anything beyond affected speech and mannerisms to the role. Part of that may be the writing. After all, they are clearly meant to be shallow. On the other hand, the actors playing adult characters fare much better. They bring emotional complexities and depth to their roles. Unfortunately, not as much of the focus is on them, as there perhaps should be. I desperately wanted to get to know Em and Sarah's mom Nance (Rose) better. She not only has an intriguing story from what we're told, she also becomes integral to the plot.

Faults and shortcomings aside, Assassination Nation is a compelling piece of cinema. It's reach is ambitious, and even though it doesn't hit everything it tries to, it's main message lands pretty clearly. Despite this, I fully understand this is not a movie for everyone. It's unapologetically violent, gory, and just plain nutty, particularly during the third act. If you can get past that, you'll find a movie with lots of interesting things to say, capable of starting some meaningful conversations.

Day 4 Entries:


  1. Assassination Nation appears to have flown under the radar, good job highlighting it here for Girl Week. Sounds like a daring, ambitious piece of cinema.

    1. It is daring and ambitious. Even its detractors would concede that.

  2. I heard a lot of things about this film as I'm interested in seeing it just to see how bonkers it is.

    1. It gets pretty nuts. I think you'll like that about it.

  3. I'm unfamiliar with this one Dell. As I was reading through your description though it called to mind The Ox-Bow Incident with your mention of group think and mob mentality and the damage that it can reap. I'm sure this is extremely different from that somber exercise in pack viciousness but it does sound like it shares some common themes.

    1. Oh, pack viciousness is definitely there. However, there's nothing somber about it, lol.

  4. I've heard this is pretty fun, and I haven't seen it yet. I will try, eventually. The ending of that trigger warning list alone makes me chuckle.

    1. It is quite the list. And quite the movie.