Assassination Nation is a film about four teenage girls in a town turned rabid in the wake of a massive data leak. It is a bombastic satire about sex, power and violence, set in what is unmistakably Donald Trump’s America.
Living in Salem, Massachusetts, Lily (Odessa Young) is a smart, confident girl, in many ways a typical teenager. She has a dim but pretty boyfriend and three close friends – Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse). Unbeknownst to her friends, she also regularly spends time sexting with a contact in her phone listed only as ‘Daddy’. Once an anonymous online presence begins leaking people’s internet history – beginning with the mayor, then the school principal and eventually half of the town – Salem begins a descent into scandal and lawlessness, with the girls fixed in the crosshairs of an angry and misogynistic mob.
The film, written and directed by Sam Levinson, structures itself around this eventual bedlam. The characters are given scant time to flesh out before heavy-handed point-scoring takes over. The narrative lurches towards the finale are meant to be both scary and empowering – a portrait of female victims driven to bloody vengeance – but there is little suggested by Assassination Nation that is not axiomatic. The film’s politics, while righteous and agreeable, are rendered with sensationalism and without enough nuance. Levinson is able to identify and depict what is wrong and loathsome about society, but unable to deconstruct it any further. Despite the blood and bluster, it does not go far enough in its social caricature to effectively satirise anything. It is The Purge, but woke.
There is a sharp edge to Assassination Nation, a nastiness towards women that pretty accurately reflects the world at large. Is it enjoyable to watch teenage girls be called sluts over again? To see them harassed, assaulted and blamed? It is an exercise in frustration, in social injustice, and the only solution it offers is violent retribution. Curiously, there are also areas in which the film fails to be quite vicious enough. Bex (and Hari Nef) is transgender, a commendable and significant piece of casting and character work. Her gender plays into the storyline, focusing on a love interest who is embarrassed to have made out with her. She is treated just as cruelly – and, by the end, violently – as her cisgender friends, which actually serves as good insight into how trans women are subject to conventional misogyny from people who refuse to acknowledge them as women. But then the far-right angry mob are also willing to use her correct pronouns; the script gives them in this instance an incongruous amount of ethical credit.
If I were to say that Assassination Nation is too broad, too prurient and too superficial – which it is – or that it is flashy and often obnoxious in its point-making – which it also is – then maybe this stems from some unconscious sexism. The idea that I, a cis man, am insisting that for a feminist satire to be successful it should be restrained, quiet, all those traditional adjectives of femininity which have been used to silence and contain and stifle women’s voices since forever. But maybe the problem is that it isn’t a women’s voice that’s being too loud. Assassination Nation is a timely story of female empowerment that’s directed by a man. And at the end of the day, there’s no good reason it should have been.