Odessa Young plays Lily Colson, a high school girl living in Salem. She contends with artistic stifling at school, gossip among her friends and sexual pressure from the men in her life, including the menacing “daddy”. However the already troubling dynamic of her small town is torn apart as thousands of citizens have their personal data exposed. As everyone pursues one personal vendetta after another, the town descends into chaos. Eventually Lily and her friends become the focus of a town wide campaign of hatred. Its up to them to take up arms against this sea of self righteous maniacs.
Assassination Nation is not an easy watch. The brutal reality portrayed is upsettingly convincing. Teenage angst is explored through the slimy prism of nudes, sexting and spying. The film opens with a series of trigger warnings, essentially giving itself permission to indulge in all of these upsetting themes such as the male gaze, rape and homophobia. You certainly can’t say you weren’t warned. So troubling is the aggression shown towards the girls and so pervasive is the lack of sympathy towards anyone deemed to have done wrong, the eventual idiosyncratic gory vengeance is actually something of a relief. The guns are finally in the right hands and the near merciless violence being aimed in the right direction. Catharsis follows, sort of.
The film is very definitely self aware, making frequent allusions to it being a film, and a revenge drama at that. This doesn’t make the very authentic violence persecuted by men against the teenage girls feel any less fraught. This is, however, very much the point of the film. It may be bright and cheesy but this is very much a cry of anger against the endurance and even modernisation of misogyny.
The small town in which the film is set is Salem, with obvious witchcraft connotations. This does feel like The Crucible directed by a young Oliver Stone. The anxieties around mass hysteria and mob mentality are definitely as relevant today as in the dark days of McCarthyism, and this film exposes them masterfully. In an uncharacteristically quiet moment, the girls all discuss what they would lose if they were hacked, the dark secrets in their digital closets. Everyone has something to hide, especially those who most vehemently persecute those who transgress.
There’s also a generational aspect to the social tension. It recalls Battle Royale in that the adults all clearly fear their own youth. There’s a sense that the elders of this society built the prison that that young find themselves trapped within. The youth also are frustrated at the hypocrisy of the older generation holding them to a standard that they themselves are unable to follow. Lily is frequently let down by her parents when she needs them most. One of the most upsetting scenes of the film comes when they finally find out about “daddy”. There’s a sense of mourning for the American Family.
It is a cynical film. It’s a definite attack on the horrors of a modern society in which everyone is surveilling themselves and policing each other. Occasionally this thematic concern overrules genuine emotion. Although Odessa Young is fabulous in the lead, perfectly articulating angst and frustration, and Hari Nef is excellent as perhaps her only real friend, all too often other characters are reduced to caricature. Balancing camp extravagance with genuine emotion is always a difficult balance, and Assassination Nation tends towards the grotesque spectacle.
The film is consistently visually arresting. Split screen, long takes and unusual camera angles make the film energetic. There’s a youthful energy suggesting that this treatise on the modern world is young through and through. There’s also grittier footage of the assailants that recalls resent acts of hatred like the Charlottesville Riots. The production design does recall The Purge, but the red coats the ladies don in the finale feel destined to become iconic.
Assassination Nation is one of the hardest to watch and yet most compelling films of the year. It’s an unsubtle gut punch of a political statement, but a very sincere and utterly arresting one.
Assassination Nation will have it’s UK premier at The London Film Festival on Friday the 19th at 21.30 at Cineworld Leicester Square.