Assassination Nation (2018)

Assassination Nation first published by Sight & Sound, December 2018

Review: “This is 100% a true story,” says 18-year-old Lily Colson (Odessa Young) in her opening voiceover, promising a tale of a town losing its mind and wanting to kill four teenaged girls. “It gets pretty graphic,” she adds. Indeed, while many films begin with po-faced warnings about their content, writer/director Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation comes with ‘trigger warnings’, set to a rapid, near indecipherable montage of punchy preview shots, each accompanied by text specifying the associated offence. It is a smart way of showing the film’s demographic: adolescents struggling to find their way, image and identity in an often hostile world governed by the internet. 

Friends Lily, Bev (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) are adept at navigating compartmentalised, code-switching lives lived mostly online. In particular, Lily addictively sexts the older, married ‘Daddy’ behind the back of her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård), while Bev is hoping that her transgender status will not get in the way of a relationship with dishy Diamond (Danny Ramirez). Their home, Salem, is a hotbed of secrets, shame and subdued misogyny. The metaphorical masks that everyone here wears in their daily lives will soon become literal ones when a mysterious hacker starts publishing the townsfolk’s private data and search history, triggering a modern-day witch hunt not just to eliminate the troll, but to remove any perceived stain on Salem’s outmoded sense of its own normalcy – and somebody has just pointed the finger at Lily, even though her life has been as ruined as everyone else’s by this public exposure.

“Lock him up! Lock him up!” people shout at a town meeting, drowning out the plea for reason and reflection made by the local school’s principal (Colman Domingo). That they are all white – and he is African-American – marks their status as a lynch mob, much as later we shall see an army of masked white men entering a black single mother’s home with murderous intent. Part of what is being satirised here is the kneejerk posses of condemnation, doxxing and reprisal that form reactively among digital communities at the first hint that someone has stepped out of (on)line – but mixed in with that is a more straightforwardly political critique of America’s culture wars. For the very words of the townsfolk echo Donald Trump’s campaign catch-cry against supposedly ‘crooked’ Hillary Clinton, as these good-seeming yet angry people long to make Salem great again (with their notion of greatness redefined by a regressive Fifties standard). They will even resort to water-boarding and public lynchings to express and expiate their sense of moral panic.

So Assassination Nation updates the poison-pen paranoia of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Corbeau (1943) to our own age in which the meanest, most backward instincts of a nation (in microcosm) are reawoken and redirected against progressive values or crimes against conservatism. By the end, the plot has devolved into a combination of The Crazies (1973) and The Purge (2013), as a new generation of sex-positive feminists and their allies march in a counterforce of solidarity against the old, persistent ills of patriarchy’s ‘daddy’. 

Synopsis: Salem, USA, today. Highschool seniors Lily, Bev, Sarah and Em struggle to keep their public and private lives separate. Lily secretly sexts the older, married ‘daddy’ Nick who lives next door. Transgender Bev wishes her crush Diamond could commit to her and his own sexuality. A hacker, Erostr4tus, publishes secret cross-dressing videos of the Republican Mayor, driving him to suicide., and then photos of Principal Turrell’s young daughter nude, leading parents to call for Turrell to be fired and jailed. When half the town’s entire online records are published, moral panic sets in. Lily is kicked out of her own home for her sext affair with Nick, and harassed by a male stranger, hits him with a spade. One month later, young Marty is interviewed by the police, Subsequently tortured by jocks, he tells them that Lily is Erostr4tus. A mob breaks into Em’s house, where Lily is staying, and kills Em’s mother. Lily flees to Nick’s, but upon discovering that he has murdered his wife and daughter and plans to rape her, she kills him, and takes his arsenal of weapons. The jocks abduct Bev and insist Diamond string her up, but he refuses. A policeman arrests Em and Sarah, planning to lynch them, but Lily shoots him. The three rescue Bev (and Diamond) in a gun battle. More women join them. Erostr4tus turns out to be Lily’s little brother.

© Anton Bitel