“What?” That was the first thing I said when the screen cut to black and the credits started to roll on Assassination Nation. How could you honestly say anything else?
It’s very hard to watch Assassination Nation. Outside of its possible triggering content (which it warns at the beginning of the film), it’s just a really jarring film. Yes, it all makes sense in terms of what happens, and it’s a well-made, stylish, modern exploitation film, but it’s also very confusing.
We begin with Lily, a young high school student whose life revolves around fashionably flashy clothes, social media, and her friends surviving the daily grind of secondary education. In a fictionalized Salem, Lily and her friends suddenly face anarchy when half of their town is hacked and mayhem arises in the streets. In a nutshell, that’s what this film is about: how information can lead to insurrection. At the end of the day I tried to boil this movie down to being about victimization and marginalization since it certainly does have a lot to say about that. We see marginalized groups become victims of the hacks first, and then we see how the young girls become another part of an unseeable system that has no care for what disastrous situations it causes. Who’s the hacker too? The film is less concerned with this and more concerned with what consequences the hacker causes.
Writer-director Sam Levinson does an exceptional job on both fronts. His script at times is genuinely hilarious but also deeply unnerving. He pushes the themes and horrors of his concept to their extreme but weaves realistic dialogue throughout, which points out that in our conversations we make light of a lot of darkness.
His direction is intentional and impactful. Our protagonist is almost constantly illuminated with fluorescent pink light, and he ditches realism at times to focus on making a visually powerful shot. Toward the beginning of the film, when the girls go to a party, he uses a split screen effect to make the screen look like a Snapchat or Instagram post. These characters’ lives are entirely superficial, and Levinson constantly brings attention to that—albeit to varying effectiveness. His film is still visually captivating; his attention to how the scenes are lit is meticulous and incredibly well-done.
What struck me the most about this film is that I couldn’t tell if it was gratuitous to make a point or if it goes too far and loses sense of the mentality that it was trying to critique in the first place. Many call it a “modern day retelling of the Salem witch trials,” but it seems to be much more than that. To simplify the film like that doesn’t really do it justice for all of the heavy-lifting it does on other fronts. It’s also a deconstruction of the social norms and expectations that we have as a social-media driven culture. While many stories seem to falter in their critique of this new system of communication, Assassination Nation unabashedly lives in it, and it shows how those who are perpetually victimized in society are also victimized online.
Perhaps Assassination Nation is a bit too dramatic for its own good, but it seems to speak to a fear of the great unknown about the internet and social media. Is social media helping us in the long-run, or are we just letting ourselves be consumed by it? Levinson doesn’t know, nor does he pretend to, but he rightfully feeds a lot of anxiety around it. With this film, he begs us to examine the ways we behave with these new systems in place.