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.