Ever since I saw the first trailer for “Assassination Nation” I was hooked. I loved the concept teased in the trailers, the cast looked promising and I’m always a sucker for a project filled with great social commentary. Not everyone has latched on to the idea though which resulted in this film flopping at the box office over the weekend. It’s certainly not a movie for the faint of heart as films like this usually tend to be overlooked due to pretentiousness or a lack of substance. So does “Assassination Nation” deserve to be ignored or is it a gem being overlooked by a society desperately in need of a wakeup call they refuse to embrace? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Assassination Nation”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Assassination Nation” takes place in Salem, Massachusetts and follows a group of four female friends, Lily Colson (Odessa Young), transgender woman Bex (Hari Nef), and sisters Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse). After the town’s mayor gets hacked and all his personal information, including conversations and pictures from his phone, are leaked the city begins to wonder who is behind the attack believing it to be a one-time act of vigilante justice. However, when the town’s respected principal also gets hacked people begin to realize this wasn’t a one-time thing and eventually half of Salem, including police officials, fall victim to the hacker. As secrets are uncovered and the government refuses to intervene Salem falls into a state of chaos and anarchy and when Lily is accused of being the hacker she and her friends band together to fight back against a community that has lost its mind.
I was mixed on the performances in this film but I found most of the cast to be simply okay at worst. Even Bella Thorne, who I usually can’t stand and plays a minor role in this film, wasn’t that bad. The four actresses who play the friends we follow through the film, Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, are all perfect teen-girl stereotypes and if you get the chance to see this movie you learn this is on purpose because they’re supposed to be serious parodies of today’s social media-obsessed youth. However most of the character development goes to Young and Nef and both own their time on screen quite well. Nef for me was a welcome surprise as a real-life transgender woman who plays a transgender character. She serves as a good posterchild for why casting a transgender or gay person in these roles is the best idea because we can truly believe she understands her character since she’s not always acting; she’s actually speaking from real life experience and understanding. Odessa Young is the best thing about this movie though as we see her transform from prissy popular girl into scarred badass and eventually into a symbol of how each generation is simply the product of society. I loved watching both of them on screen but sadly they are the most developed characters in a film otherwise filled with shallow shells.
One of the biggest flaws of “Assassination Nation” is that most of the major development is, in fact, put into Lily and Bex specifically. Most of the rest of the cast are simply caricatures with only small glimpses of developed personalities. The biggest sin is the underdeveloped pair of sisters, Em and Sarah, who barely add anything to the story other than being pieces to a larger puzzle. The odd thing is they actually play big parts in Lily’s group and help her take her revenge on those who wrongly accuse her but we really don’t know anything about the sisters. There’s not a lot of personality or development given to them. That said their involvement in the final showdown seems shallow compared to Bex and Lily because we don’t know their demons or secrets. We know how they suffer after the riots begin but we don’t learn why the stakes are high for them in the beginning. At least with Lily and Bex we have legitimate character traits that threaten to work against them but with Sarah and Em there’s really nothing of substance. They’re just two badass chicks that happen to be on Lily’s side and not much more.
One of the main focuses of “Assassination Nation” is misogyny and I’ll touch of how well the movie tackles that theme later but I have to admit it’s hard to appreciate what the film is trying to say when it offers such bland male characters especially when the men end up being the main antagonists in the final act. The likes of Bill Skarsgård, Joel McHale and others are all wasted in roles that provide few redeemable traits. I give them credit for making the most of the material and giving us threatening characters but there’s not a lot there to make me feel sorry for them. It’s probably the biggest problem with this movie overall. Other than a select few exceptions most of the cast of characters goes underdeveloped as the film clearly emphasizes it’s message or the people involved in bringing it to life.
And that brings me to the central theme of this black comedy. When I look back on “Assassination Nation” I see a film that is what “The Purge” should have been, which is convenient seeing as many people were prematurely comparing the two films before its release. While a bit heavy handed (likely by design) “Assassination Nation” makes some incredibly honest and brutal observations about society and not just our obsession with social media. It tackles American hypocrisy from almost every level and rarely holds back going so far as to warn viewers right from the get go about the content they’re going to see as both a serious warning about potential “triggers” but also as a sly punch in the gut towards those who are “triggered” in the first place.
I was impressed at the balance of this film in how it approaches issues of American society today. One moment it tackles the issue of transgender judgement and the hypocrisy of politicians and the next moment it shows society destroying a good man because he has pictures of his daughter in the bathtub which is something society never frowned upon in the past but today can be taken out of context to accuse someone of pedophilia. In an era where comedy and any kind of social media post can be used as weapons and social justice warriors try to decipher what’s too far or what’s not far enough “Assassination Nation” is fascinating in the lengths its willing to go to throw America in general under the buss and expose some harsh societal truths about hypocrites from both sides of the isle and how good people can become victims in a world where information about each other is easier to access than ever before.
I appreciated the violent and uncomfortable nature of this film too, the fact that it was willing to go in some pretty dark places and do so with a great visual aesthetic. By incorporating a cause to the panic, the destruction of lives through the revealing of digital secrets, the violence seems like a natural and believable progression. As an interesting choice the filmmakers made all of the rioting community members men while those who are more peaceful and victimized are women utilizing the parallel that men tend to be more protective of their secrets while hiding more lies while women tend to be more open with their use of social media and texting while holding maybe one or two big issues that victimize their own gender. Plus the whole thing is set in Salem, MA which is the famous sight of the legendary witch hunts fitting in with Lily being accused of something she never did as people seek someone to blame. It is a bit heavy handed but overall “Assassination Nation” succeeds in making its points, tackling misogyny, feminism, hypocrisy, self-identity versus reality, and a whole host of other controversial issues with finesse and style while never truly taking itself too seriously.
One more awesome aspect of this film is it’s home invasion scene which for me is absolutely incredibly shot using seemingly uncut single camera motions focusing on the outside of the home as we see the invaders work their way in and one by one immobilize the occupants of the house. This is how these kinds of scenes should be shot. The approach makes the viewer feel like an onlooker into something we shouldn’t be privy too and ups the suspense as we know what both sides of the coin are doing at any given time and who is aware or unaware of what. It’s a pretty cool sequence that really captures the danger and intensity of the moment and kicks off a series of violent events that make up the third act of this movie in style.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
While I personally love the social commentary incorporated into this film I will admit that to the right person “Assassination Nation” will seem very pretentious. It says a lot and packs so much into an hour and 45 minutes that it’s easy to overlook the significance of its message and see it for what it is on the surface, a moderately feminist “Purge” ripoff. It’s a niche film to be sure that targets a lot of social issues people probably won’t be comfortable with while leaving out certain angles for the sake of its story. Any film of this kind is bound to have a few holes in its presentation, but “Assassination Nation” feels like it might have a bit more than usual and I think that’s because it goes all in so the emotional reaction it tries to draw forces you to read between the lines for what’s missing. That’s a long winded way of saying that “Assassination Nation” is a great and timely film but it’s one that leaves itself open to all kinds of criticism from those who disagree with the perspective and while that’s completely subjective it counts as a criticism nonetheless.
Finally I feel like the film spends too much time working up to its climax and not enough time exploring the downfall of society in the wake of the hacking. I know it tackles a lot of great things near the end including the breakdown of justice (the police eventually get in on the riots) and all the other promised social injustice issues we are warned about in the opening moments of the film but all of this transpires in the last half hour or so and when the violence finally truly kicks in it’s over and done in I think I counted 20 minutes of screen time. The ending is the most frustrating especially when we find out who is truly behind the hacking because if you have half a brain you can figure it out with the simple clues provided over the course of the movie. It’s literally telegraphed for us which takes away a lot of the surprise in the supposed twist. Overall I enjoyed the journey but the destination could have been a little less telegraphed and a little less rushed. We don’t even get to the see the result of the violence that ensues which might be a spoiler but it’s more of a warning from me that you’re not going to get the ultra-violent ending you probably think you will from this movie.
I truly enjoyed “Assassination Nation” but I’ll also admit I loved it for a lot of personal reasons. it the kind of in-your-face social commentary film I just love to watch because I believe film is an art form made for that kind of expression. Even with my bias aside however I really do recommend it. It have many flaws to its credit including a rushed finale, poorly developed characters, and a bit of pretentious flavor. If you can look beyond that though you’ll find a movie that has something to say and is not afraid to put it all out there with great visual style and some fun violence that never seems too over the top. “Assassination Nation” could have been much more, but is accomplishes what the filmmakers set out to do and while it’s not everyone’s cup of tea it’s still a movie experience worth enjoying if you’re looking for a project that’s both fun and thought provoking at the same time.