I don’t claim to be a film expert or historian; I just watch them and try to direct your decision on whether or not you should watch something. Even if I love something, I’m fairly good at knowing if the average Joe will like it or not. I should note, that’s it’s not because the film’s content is over their heads or above them, it’s just a matter of taste. I could equate that knowledge for growing up in the Midwest and generally listening to what people in America’s heartland like. So when a movie like ASSASSINATION NATION comes along, I know immediately that the average Joe won’t like this, much less my blue collar brethren. But with this particular film, I’m actually kind of hung up on whether I like it or not.
The movie follows four friends, Lily (Young), the film’s narrator, Sarah (Waterhouse), the least interesting of the group, Bex (Hari Nef) a transgender who’s coming to terms with what her crush told her after they hooked up, and Em (Abra), who’s only marginally more vital to the film’s plot than Sarah. They watch and comment on the inner workings of their high school in Salem, Massachusetts. Meanwhile, in the background of their melodramas, an anonymous hacker has released all the personal information and photos from the phone of Salem’s mayor. Rather than face embarrassment and a mountain of criticism, the Mayor blows his brains out on live TV. Soon the hacker turns his ire to the high school principal, the student body, and the tiny town.
The parallels between this anonymous hacker and Russian bots are clear as day, but most of the film’s commentary on 21st century topics are rather blunt, especially when the women of Salem are suddenly being put on public trial after the release of their own personal information. The word subtlety is clearly missing from the director’s personal dictionary. This is Sam Levinson’s second film, and while he clearly has a knack for visuals and cinematography, his writing needs some workshopping.
I write this review several days after watching the film. Sometimes as critics, we have to meet a deadline and make a lot of gut decisions on our feelings towards a film. With blu-rays, I luckily have a decent amount of time to chew on it. I’ve fallen on both sides of the debate, as to whether or not I liked or disliked ASSASSINATION NATION. So I might as well explain both sides of the argument that I’ve been having with myself over the last few days.
On one hand, ASSASSINATION NATION is a violent rallying cry against toxic masculinity. In some ways it asks women to pursue and fight for leadership roles because the men in charge have planted rotten seeds, eroding the system and values in place. It even makes an interesting argument for how men have corrupted and choked the free-spirited life out of the Internet. The most recent ban on pornography by Tumblr seems to mirror the film’s message about how men have used social media as another censorship tool, while at the same time, using it to exploit the women they claim to love.
But on the other hand, the film seems to fetishize the women it puts in power towards the story’s end. We get a lot of odd stylistic choices that feel like it’s sexualizing the women instead of empowering them through sex. It’s already a tough line to tow and it finds itself dabbling on both sides. As for the social media perspective, it’s disheartening to see the film highlight and poke fun at teenager’s vapid nature during this bizarre Internet age. ASSASSINATION NATION also mistakenly uses key words and phrases from social justice warriors as a punch line.
There are a few scenes where I could imagine a packed theater cheering and applauding, but I could also imagine an audience not in tune with the film walking out 30 minutes in. It’s the kind of film that clearly wants you to love or hate it, to the point where it struggles to find its own clear voice and unique message. It falls short of the clever and stylish highs seen in a movie like SORRY TO BOTHER YOU, which presents the message of one group and then expands it to encompass outsiders so that they can feel included in the fight against inequality.
I’m sure that the film’s end will draw comparisons to THE PURGE when the tiny town of Salem devolves into chaos and violence. But I wouldn’t want to compare the two because THE PURGE argues more for class and racial issues while ASSASSINATION NATION is arguing more in gender politics and social media run amok. They’re both similar in that they have creative problems attempting to be smarter than the violence and gore they show on screen. I give THE PURGE the edge because it comes from a creator who understands the plight he’s fighting for. Director Levinson isn’t the right voice for this boiling feminine rage. Given the same material, I’m sure Karyn Kusama (THE INVITATION) or Julia Ducournau (RAW) could have spun something visceral and thought provoking. While comically crass and socially aware about its elements, ASSASSINATION NATION barely misses the mark when it comes to an artful criticism of one aspect of society.
Video: (1080p HD Widescreen 2:39:1) The film is gorgeous and it’s hard to dismiss Levinson’s natural abilities behind the camera. Everything looks wonderful on this blu-ray.
Audio: (English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1) No problems with the audio.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (16:59): There’s a handful of deleted and extended scenes, as well as an alternate scene. Nothing here really sticks out besides the alternate scene, which feels more like an edit made later on when it didn’t tonally fit in the movie’s ending.
Gag Reel (6:22): A bizarre feature that attempts to add to the belief that this film is a dark comedy. To me, that’s still debatable.