Cathartic pleasure is dressed in red.
Writer/director Sam Levinson opens his modern-day uber-midnight movie with an ungodly list of “trigger warnings”, including but not limited to “blood,” “sexism,” “toxic masculinity,” “kidnapping,” “murder” and the “male gaze”. In a world where pre-emptive viewing alerts are quickly becoming the norm, this brand of self-aware smugness is a very cheeky nod, almost like someone explaining the several ways they’re going to get you off before the clothes are even removed. Whether or not that’s your kink is a firm indicator of whether Assassination Nation is a film for you.
“This is the story of how my town, Salem, lost its fucking mind,” Lily (Odessa Young) narrates, as the camera lingers over a queer suburbia, homeowners in their gardens wearing conspicuous masks. Very much a product of its time, Levinson’s film charts a town’s descent into Purge-esque pandemonium after a hacker starts leaking citizens’ private details, from the inconsequential to the fiercely private.
We view this mainly from the viewpoint of four, fairly typical teenage girls; Lily, Sarah (Suki Waterhouse, who isn’t afforded anything in the way of character development), Bex (Hari Nef) and Em (Abra). It’s a rather dim view of socialising in the 21st century, but how painfully true it is – these girls gather to chat yes, but mainly to channel each other’s energy while they scroll through the top social networks on their phones. “Men who don’t eat pussy are sociopathic,” they say, in a long list of highlights from a witty and ferocious script. That’s another thing, men are not presented in the most positive of ligths; Bex, who is trans, finally gets with the boy she fancies at a party, but afterwards he coldly warns that no-one can know about it, although she takes it in her stride.
The madness kicks off when the town’s mayor, a far-right anti-LGBT creature, gets his various lingerie-clad pictures leaked. The nefarious hacker then leaks the high school principal’s data, including pictures of his very, very young children in the bath (for which locals zealously call him a paedophile). Before they know it, in a grand gesture reminiscent of the infamous ‘fappening’, half of Salem see their dirty laundry aired – quite problematic for Lily, who is partaking in a salacious texting affair with her creepy babysitter (Joel McHale), while her lumbering tit of a boyfriend (Bill Skarsgård) is none the wiser. Somehow, Lily gets the blame for the unforeseen leak, sparking concerns of whether her cohorts will make it through the night.
At first you may be fooled into thinking this is an attack on men, but those concerns are mitigated quickly; this is an incendiary assault on a rapidly changing culture, while also keen to remember the now out-of-date views that no longer deserve residence. One of the group’s acquaintances has a vomit-worthy monologue regarding her worth and the pointlessness of privacy, to which the girls quite rightly snigger. Setting the witch hunt in Salem may show a total disregard for subtlety, but gentle nuance has no place in Assassination Nation.
Everything here is turned up to 11; hyperrealism is the order of the day, from the split-screen, visceral and imposingly aural party sequences (framed terrifically by cinematographer Marcell Rév), to the costume design (Lily wears Fatal Attraction socks at one point), to the versatile, immersive composition from Ian Hultquist which really underscores the tension and emotional stakes.
As a midway telling shot of a reversed American flag preceding a baseball bat to the head indicates, the bloodshed is coming thick and fast. The transition though, which veers away from ravening satire, is not an efficient segue, switching genres in a matter of minutes. Once you move past that disorientation though, the climax is a cathartic, ultraviolent testament to its 18-rating. Orchestrated with exciting, avant-garde direction from Levinson, an inspired single-take pumps up the blood pressure before the final girls fight back, dressed in (already) iconic red trench-coats, armed with a ridiculous arsenal akin to that of a one Nicholas Angel in Hot Fuzz. This does have the potential to remembered lovingly under the cult light, reminiscent of punky efforts such as Heathers, but perhaps lacking in subversive glory due to its inane brashness. But the closing punch can be interpreted in whichever way best pleases you – for me, it’s an indictment, and cautious premonition, of the new generations. As a credits reel, marching band rendition of Miley Cyrus preaches, the world is our house, and we can do what we want to.