Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation is over the top, at times, lacks coherency, and is longer than it needs to be, yet it’s still brilliant. This attack on misogyny, mob rule, hypocrisy, and transphobia is a film that effectively taps the nerve of an angry, yet evolving country.
The film centers around 4 friends: Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra). The four are your typical teens, young, promiscuous, open, and looking for a good time. However, their world is blown apart by a hacker who invades their small Salem town. The hacker first leaks the personal lives of the town’s homophobic mayor, who turns out to be a gay cross dresser, and the principal of their school (Colman Domingo). Soon half of the town’s information is leaked, and as they say, “all hell breaks loose.”
And while the film centers around female empowerment, it would be incorrect to call it a female revenge film. Instead, it’s female survival. Because none of the women have any cause for revenge, separate from the shaming of these young girls, as they’re attempting to live within the hypocrisy of their society and culture. It’s the same culture where Lily is expected to go down on her boyfriend: Mark (Bill Skarsgård), but he’s not required to reciprocate the same act for her. The theme of female empowerment is more lively throughout the film than that of mob rule, which is often obtrusive to the narrative arc of the story.
The four actresses are all stellar. In particular, Odessa Young, who will be a star one day. Her turn as Lily, a quick talking, promiscuous, clear-eyed teen, could have easily become tawdry. Instead, Young fully inhabits this character. Also, the casting of Hari Nef is the kind that the rest of Hollywood should be doing.
But the bravest portion of Assassination Nation comes in the form of a sex scene. That scene includes Nef’s character, Bex, and a football player named Diamond (Danny Ramirez). The very showing of a trans sex scene in a mainstream film breaks boundaries not just because of the physical interaction, but because of the aftermath. Because of the hope of romance and open acceptance from Bex’s end, to the heartbreak of secrecy required from Diamond’s end. It’s one of the many portions of Assassination Nation that’s so needed for this period. Levinson is able to exemplify the trans experience within what’s a normal teen hook-up at a party.
Levinson’s film also has the stylistic sheen of a glitter party, everything is tossed in the air with much of it landing. The camera work of the home invasion scene, as the towns people come to abduct these four women is as elaborate as a trapeze artist. In most thrillers, the editing will become choppy in the highest intensity scenes. Levinson works counterintuitively as he opts to go with a single long take. The camera wraps and pans across the outside of this mostly glass house and we observe as each intruder abducts each girl. The result provides one of the most thrilling sequences of the year.
Nevertheless, the film’s already loose narrative somehow unravels, as it tries to raise the stakes by putting both Bex and Lily in grave danger. The ensuing switching between their respective situations needlessly elongates the film. Instead, Levinson may have been better off combining the two in a single scene and setting rather than splitting their screen time. His heart may be in the right place, but the story isn’t.
Levinson, unfortunately, often relies on thriller tropes, such as the woman who’s bathed in blood and becomes reborn. In most cases, the rebirth results in the woman suddenly becoming an expertly trained marksman. That sort of the thing rarely happens to male characters, but often does to their female counterparts. For a film that’s rightly woke, that gender stereotype is certainly out of place.
Still, when Assassination Nation is going well it’s a film that Quentin Tarantino would have been proud of. It’s bloody, skirts the line between tasteful and tasteless, and pushes the audience’s own comfortability. And when we arrive at the cathartic ending, when these women finally fight for themselves in a bloody battle to the end, we’re meant to leave, not fearful of the same type of leaks happening to us, but with the knowledge that the same type of shaming that happens to these women, however, tacit it may be, happens to women every single day.