Review: This Generation Finally Has Its Heathers in Assassination Nation
3 out 5 Red Trench Coats.
I had no idea what to expect when I walked in to see Assassination Nation, the black comedy thriller written and directed by Sam Levinson and released by NEON, AGBO, and Refinery29, but leaving the theater, I turned to my friend and said, “This generation finally has its Heathers.”
In the small suburban town of Salem, Massachusetts, a group of friends—Lilly (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse)—is living their relatively normal teen lives, with a not-so-healthy dose of sex drama, when a hacker starts attacking the community, releasing private texts and photos, starting with the Mayor and then bleeding out into the community. Soon the town gives in to its Purge-like instincts and goes on a hunt for those responsible, which leads them to Lilly’s doorstep.
When a film opens up with a montage of trigger warnings ranging from toxic masculinity to sexism to transphobia, there’s a moment where you wonder, “Who is this movie for?” Is it mocking, satirizing, or simply unsure of itself? Slowly, it becomes clear that not only is this film very satirical, but it also enjoys toeing the line right up to where it’s becoming uncomfortable, but pulls back to give you relief. It also, using Salem as a location, alludes to witch hunts and the conservative society that everyone struggles to live under, but no one truly believes in.
The first half of a movie is really a critique of sex in our culture, about men taking out their frustration or placing their anxieties on women. We see this most in Lilly’s relationships with her boyfriend Mark, played by Pennywise the Dancing Clown Bill Skarsgård, who is emotionally and later physically abusive, calling Lilly a slut for just talking about sex with her friends. This is what also pushes Lilly into a non-physical, but still sexual, relationship with an older man known as “Daddy.”
We also see this with Bex, who is being pursued by a popular football player named Diamond, but tells her to keep it a secret because she is transgender.
When the second half begins, the violence and surrealism ratchet up to 9000 as the townspeople act on their worst impulses in order to hunt the hacker and prove they are “good people” despite the terrible things exposed about them. It then turns into a violent, gun-fu revenge fantasy film that’s deeply satisfying despite the ridiculous nature of it all. But then I thought, “Is it really that ridiculous?”
If half of a small conservative town had all their secrets exposed at the same time, what would happen? With the internet, so many people live dual lives, and even beyond that, everybody talks shit and has private thoughts that are kept so close on our computers and phones. Just an individual being hacked can be devastating for that person, but a whole community?
My biggest problem with the film is that the writing is a little thin at times. Lilly and Bex are real people, and when the girls are together, the group dynamic of their friendship carries it forward, but in an ensemble cast, people get left out, and that is sadly Em and Sarah. Certain characters are pretty much absent in the latter half of the movie, and some of the dialogue is a little clunky, but overall, I was with it from beginning to end.
Assassination Nation is not for everyone, but for me, it felt powerfully relevant in our society, and after watching the second season of American Vandal, this movie was the perfect chaser to that experience, especially with similar endings. Assassination Nation is ambitious, mostly fun, but also dark, highlighting the ease with which people will elevate cruelty to protect themselves and their norms, if allowed to.
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