×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Assassination Nation’

The Salem witch trials get inflamed by social media in Sam Levinson's carpet-bombing modern update.

With:
Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, Joel McHale.

1 hour 50 minutes

Three centuries ago in Salem, Mass., rumors got 20 residents killed. Imagine if the mob had Twitter. Sam Levinson’s furious fempowerment thriller “Assassination Nation” stars four high school girls in a present-day, parallel-universe Salem forced to grab guns after an anonymous hacker exposes all of the town’s dirt. Midnight audiences started whooping at the opening trigger warning that they were about to see sexism, racism, torture, violence, and fragile male egos, but the actual film feels like a Molotov cocktail thrown at a hazy target. Levinson’s battling more villains than any script can take on, and by the end, his sharp jabs bleed into a gory finale that settles for cathartic cheers.

Lily (Odessa Young) is 18 and she has a secret. The popular beauty is cheating on her boyfriend (Bill Skårsgard, minus the “It” makeup) by sending sexy selfies to married father Nick (Joel McHale) next door. It’s not that easy — in one scene, she lists the effort it takes to look slender, well-lit, and “hashtag fabulous” — and, as secrets go, it’s not that exceptional. Everyone’s got secrets on their phone. Her friend Bex (Hari Nef), a trans woman, just slept with a caddish football player named Diamond (Danny Ramirez) who insists they keep their hookup a secret from his team.

At parties, Lily, Bex, and their besties Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) look confident. But as they chug shots and flirt, Levinson splits the screen into three panels, each the shape of a Snapchat window, to imply that they’re performing for the public. The film cranks up the Cardi B. as the girls grind on the dance floor to get attention and social media likes. But no one wants to share how the night ends in tears.

Old people, says Lily, believe in privacy. The young aren’t as naïve. They accept that their lives are for mass consumption. At best, they try to control what piece of themselves to upload. Yet, they can still be deliberately blind to their online image, like how bimbo cheerleader Reagan (Bella Thorne) believes creepy grown-ups fave her Instagram selfies because of her visible, er, soul. When Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss), the first victim of the hack attacks, is revealed to hire male escorts, the consensus is he should have been smarter, freeing the kids to mock his taste in lingerie. Snorts one girl, “It’s so savage!”

That initial upload hits the town like a bomb. As the shadowy culprit clicks “share,” it cues the sound effect of an explosion. Next, the mob attacks Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) for taking pictures of his six-year-old daughter in the bathtub. He’s a pedophile, Lily’s parents insist. But there’s a naked baby photo of her hanging in their house, she counters. The principal stands tall in front of a screaming riot that refuses to listen to reason, setting up a showdown that “Assassination Nation” never resolves. Instead, the score swells with tragic violins, and the film rampages on.

Like the real Salem trials, middle-aged men are some of the first martyrs — although, as Bex notes, since the mayor worked against the safety of LGBTQ kids, he deserved to go down. Eventually, the throng turns to the girls. Initially, Levinson leers at their long legs and short shorts. (The film’s advisory caution did include the male gaze.) But when the lens lingers over Lily’s pink socks that read, “Fatal Attraction,” the Lolita costuming is so over-the-top that he’s also braving a conversation about a woman’s right to dress for male attention without being called “Salem’s No. 1 slut.”

Levinson is having his cheesecake, and making the audience choke on it, too. The girls — who stress several times that they’re a barely-legal 18 — radiant so much sexuality, it bewitches the town’s men. At the climax, the guys slip on masks that make them look as faceless as a Twitter avatar egg, and hunt Lily and her friends for bringing shame upon good dudes like Nick and Diamond.

The fight feels both surreal and expected. After all, in another movie, the girls know that hotties like them “would definitely die at the end.” Here, Levinson dares you to blame what the women are wearing. Few films have figured out how to embrace all the contradictions of female seduction and the girl-power victories that can also bounce back and leave them shattered. To dive into it at all is a daring choice for a young male filmmaker, and Levinson over-compensates by transforming the girls — who, in the beginning, were as corrupt as everyone else — into a valiant death squad.

“Assassination Nation” started off attacking the Internet. Now, the battle rages on gender lines with clear villains and heroes, and the sorrowful score asks us to take the film a little too seriously. There’s a nail-biting single-take scene where Levinson peers in the windows of a sleepover under siege. But the film is less interesting when its complex questions are tidied into a phalanx of avenging angels. By the time Lily delivers a lecture about hypocrisy in front of the American flag, the electric youth of the fantastic first half feels like an immature screed.

Film Review: 'Assassination Nation'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 21, 2018. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production: A Bron Studios, Foxtail Entertainment, Phantom Four presentation, in association with Creative Wealth Media. (International sales: Endeavor, Los Angeles.) Producers: David S. Goyer, Kevin Turen, Anita Gou, Matthew J. Malek, Manu Gargi, Aaron L. Gilbert. Executive producers: Jason Cloth, Steven Thibault, Andy Pollack, Mike Novogratz, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri, J.E. Moore, Will Greenfield. Co-producer: Matthias Mellinghaus. Co-executive producers: Milan Chakraborty, Brenda Gilbert.

Crew: Director, writer: Sam Levinson. Camera (color): Marcel Rév. Editor: Ron Patane. Music: Ian Hultquist.

With: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bill Skårsgard, Bella Thorne, Joel McHale.

More Film

  • China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to

    China's 'Three Adventures of Brooke' to Hit French Theaters (EXCLUSIVE)

    Midnight Blur Films has signed a deal with French distributor Les Acacias to release Chinese arthouse drama “Three Adventures of Brooke” in France this year, the Chinese production company told Variety on Saturday. A release date has yet to be set for the film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and stars Chinese newcomer Xu Fangyi [...]

  • Noe Debre On His Directorial Debut,

    Top French Screenwriter Noe Debre Makes Directorial Debut, ‘The Seventh Continent’

    This last half-decade, few French screenwriters have run up such an illustrious list of co-write credits as Noé Debré. Thomas Bedigain’s writing partner on Jacques Audiard’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Deephan,” Debra co-penned Bedigain’s own debut, “The Cowboys,” “Racer and the Jailbird,” by Michael Roskam, and “Le Brio,” directed by Yvan Attal. He has now [...]

  • Julien Trauman Talks Survival-Thriller Short ‘At

    Julien Trauman on Survival-Thriller Short ‘At Dawn’

    France’s Julien Trauman has never been afraid to play with genre, and in his latest short, the MyFrenchFilmFestival participant “At Dawn,” he employs aspects of psychological thriller, survival, coming-of-age and fantasy filmmaking. “At Dawn” kicks off the night before when a group of teens, one about to leave town, are imbibing heavily around a beach-side [...]

  • ‘Flowers’ Director Baptiste Petit-Gats Interview

    Baptiste Petit-Gats: ‘Editing Taught Me How to Write for Film’

    France’s Baptiste Petit-Gats is an hyphenate that keeps himself plenty busy editing, photographing, writing and directing. The bulk of his editing gigs up until now have been in documentary film work, evident in the way he shot and edited his own short film, participating in the MyFrenchFilmFestival, “Flowers.” In the film, Petit-Gats tells the heartbreaking [...]

  • Fanny Litard, Jérémy Trouilh on ‘Blue

    France’s Fanny Liatard, Jérémy Trouilh Discuss MyFFF Suburban Fable ‘Blue Dog’

    French filmmakers Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh met at university while studying political science before diverging towards separate careers. Trouilh trained in documentary filmmaking; Liatard worked on urban artistic projects in Lebanon and France. They eventually joined back up to film three shorts: “Gagarine,” a Sundance Channel Shorts Competition Jury Prize winner in 2016; “The [...]

  • MFFF: 'The Collection' Director Blanchard Readies

    'The Collection' Director Emmanuel Blanchard Readies First Feature

    Paris-born Emmanuel Blanchard studied and then taught history before becoming a documentary filmmaker responsible for films such as “Bombing War,” “Le diable de la République” and “Après la guerre.” He’s currently directing “Notre-Dame de Paris”, a 90-minute animated part-doc, part-fiction film on the building of the world-famous Paris cathedral. Competing at MyFFF, “The Collection” is [...]

  • Dragon Ball Super: Broly

    Film Review: ‘Dragon Ball Super: Broly’

    Late in “Dragon Ball Super: Broly,” the 20th Japanese anime feature in a 35-year-old franchise that also has spawned scads of TV series, trading cards, video games, mangas, and limited-edition collectibles, a supporting character complains, “I don’t understand a single thing you’ve said the whole time.” If you’re among the heretofore uninitiated drawn to this [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content