High school senior Lily Colson (Odessa Young) and her three best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) live their post-millennial lives in through the usual blur of texts, posts, selfies and chats. No different from anyone else, really. Yet things take a sinister turn in the town of Salem, Massachusetts when an anonymous hacker starts revealing private messages and secrets of thousands of its citizens. It is not long before events spiral wildly out of control. The whole town erupts in violent anger, somehow convinced the four girls are responsible. A murderous mob descends upon Lily and her friends, leaving them in danger but not defenseless...
Touching on social media abuse, the #MeToo movement, misogyny, trans-phobia, mob mentality, post-millennial gender politics, feminism, teenage sexuality and more, writer-director Sam Levinson's grueling, visceral twenty-first century re-imagining of the Salem Witch trials boldly stakes its claim to be the definitive teen satire of the Donald Trump era. Its ambitions are more wide-reaching and substantial than such conceptually similar recent offerings as The Purge franchise or The Hunt (2020) while the mix of pitch black teen satire, provocative horror-comedy and brazen gun violence hark back to Heathers (1989). Assassination Nation sets itself a tall mountain to climb. If the trek is not always sure-footed, stumbling with the odd unnecessarily hazy plot detail or vague characterization the summit remains a dizzying achievement.
Opening with a showy 'trigger-warning' montage cheerfully check-listing elements likely to offend (sexism, racism, torture, violence, playing to the male gaze, poking fun at fragile male egos), the film runs the risk of seeming overly pleased with itself. Yet its riot girl posturing is ably counterbalanced by more contemplative moments provoking viewers to question our own attitudes towards young people, privacy and the role social media plays in all our lives. Levinson does not set out to present his deceptively vapid teen heroines as especially laudable or even strictly likable. Yet he succeeds at making them sympathetic. Perhaps more importantly lets them argue their corner quite eloquently, which is especially true of Lily who comes across as flawed, complex, ferociously intelligent and articulate. Indeed the sensuality of the teen heroines plays a key role throughout the story in a manner likely to make some viewers uncomfortable. At first glance Assassination Nation seems to be baiting the viewer with its upfront sexualisation of Lily and co. to the point where some lambasted it as titillation posing as feminism. Yet its 'pandering' to the male gaze is part of a wider strategy astutely scrutinizing a culture where projecting sexuality is part of maintaining that all-important facade of confidence to your legions of Instagram followers. The girls know it is an illusion even as they play into it. A hazy, dreamlike party sequence where characters flirt, trade texts and in some cases hook up, sees Levinson draw a distinction between Instagram-filtered fantasy and stark reality where no-one feels good about themselves the morning after. Unlike other more alarmist teen films (we're looking at you, Larry Clark), Assassination Nation is less interested in critiquing its protagonists' sexual display than the response drawn from a cross-section of often hypocritical, shamelessly self-serving men: from Lily's manipulative boyfriend (Bill Skarsgård here infinitely more handsome yet somehow creepier than Pennywise) to her secret text-message fling (Community's Joel McHale, playing ably against type). Be that lust, moral outrage or worse, the urge to violently chastise - further underlining the parallels with the real-life Salem Witch trials. All of this ties into the script's fascinating exploration of differing generational attitudes towards privacy. While the older Salem residents cling to this concept as their god-given right, Lily and her friends believe privacy is an illusion in a post-social media world. The best one can do is try to navigate its pitfalls and try your hardest not to emerge a hypocrite. On the flipside the film also casts former Disney starlet turned social media provocateur Bella Thorne as a vacuous high school It-girl with delusions about her own importance that take a fatal turn.
As a piece of cinema Assassination Nation comes across remarkably stylish and self-assured. Suffused in a palpable atmosphere of apocalyptic dread it papers over the odd logic lapse or stumble to reach the next shocking plot twist. Levinson's bravura direction riffs on vintage Brian De Palma, Dario Argento (a pivotal home invasion sequence utilizes the most impressive and suspenseful over-around-and-through-the-house camera aerobics since Tenebre (1982)) and Japanese exploitation. The finale with the four protagonists decked out in chic blood red raincoats lifted from their earlier viewing of Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess (1971) is an apt inter-textual reference that shows Levinson has a keen grasp of exploitation cinema. Yet more than referencing the past it is the film's grasp of the here and now that lends it power.