Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
In October of last year, just days after several women accused producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, his frequent collaborator Woody Allen expressed fears of a “witch hunt atmosphere” for men. Countless people have since called the #MeToo movement that followed a “witch hunt,” a piece of hyperbole that equates powerful men losing jobs to mass executions.
The film Assassination Nation, written and directed by Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day), also uses a witch hunt metaphor. But rather than condemning the supposed excesses of feminism, it’s a furious, and often uncomfortable, anti-sexist revenge fantasy. In the words of cast member Colman Domingo during a Q&A session, “it’s a war on toxic masculinity, at all costs.” And in Assassination Nation, the hunt does end in death — many, many deaths.
What’s the genre?
Extremely blunt social satire about sexism and social media, mixed with small-town-gone-mad horror and high-school drama.
What’s it about?
Lily (High Life’s Odessa Young), Sarah (The Bad Batch’s Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Transparent’s Hari Nef), and Em (newcomer Abra) are high school girls living in the suburban town of Salem. Their lives revolve around partying, sex, and social media, until an anonymous hacker begins dumping Salemites’ phone and computer data on 4chan. At first, the hacker targets authority figures like the mayor, whose family values platform masks a hidden life of cross-dressing and Craigslist hookups. But then, half the town’s secrets are exposed, including a relationship between Lily and an older neighbor.
The revelations tear Salem, and Lily’s life, apart. Her callous boyfriend finds out about the affair and posts her information online, her unsupportive parents kick her out, and strangers violently harass her on the street. Things get even worse when a fellow student accuses Lily of being the hacker, and a violent mob comes after all four girls. Fortunately, they’re far from helpless and slowly turn the tables on their persecutors.
What’s it really about?
How hypocrisy, a lack of empathy, and a willingness to jump to extreme behaviors is destroying America. Also, how lots of people are pure evil and have to die.
Okay, that’s a little bit glib. Assassination Nation’s core interest is examining the ways that women are pushed to conform to gendered stereotypes, then punished for embodying those stereotypes — by both men and other women. In the film, hatred of women and femininity poisons all of society. It turns sex from a mutually pleasurable activity to a lopsided transaction. It makes life miserable for people who don’t fit in neat, gendered boxes, including Bex, a transgender teen. It encourages men to lash out violently when their masculinity is threatened.
The internet amplifies these problems by turning every action into a careful performance, producing a record of everyone’s secrets, and letting people act cruelly without having to face each other. (Eventually, townspeople begin donning masks to replicate the same phenomenon offline.) Levinson said after the screening that the real villain in the story is not social media, but “lack of empathy.”
But most people in Assassination Nation neither deserve nor receive empathy. To paraphrase some of Lily’s narration, there are three kinds of Salemites: a few good men and women, a few sadistic creeps, and a mass of bystanders who happily participate in misogynistic hate mobs. The last two groups become increasingly and irredeemably monstrous as the film progresses. Catcallers, vigilante cops, transphobic jocks, and predatory older men are all one step away from becoming cold-blooded murderers — and the only way to stop them is to kill them first.
Is it good?
Assassination Nation is about teenagers and the internet, two topics that are generally cringe-worthy on film. But while it’s easy to get hung up on “lit” YouTube videos, “hashtag flawless” selfies, and 4channers doing things “for the lulz,” the film features a pretty plausible and nuanced depiction of social media and doxxing, at least until everything descends into complete anarchy. The high school scenes also get played up to the point of satire, which makes any awkward teenspeak more digestible.
Instead, the film’s best and worst attribute is its absolute rejection of subtext. Every philosophical thread you might pull out of Assassination Nation is also the subject of an extremely comprehensive conversation or internal monologue. Levinson says he spent a lot of time simply reading what young women were putting online, and he works a surprising amount of contemporary feminist discourse into his script, sometimes at the cost of breaking the narrative flow.
That of-the-minute aesthetic makes Annihilation Nation frequently cathartic. The film draws visual inspiration from The Purge, most obviously its creepy masks and omnipresent American flags. But it lacks even the slightest of allegorical sci-fi figleafs. Its protagonists are fighting real (if exaggerated) flavors of misogyny, but taking a scorched-earth approach that’s miles beyond the loudest real-world calls for equality. In the real world, we’re debating precisely how sexually predatory a man can get before it’s worth complaining about, and ordering women to empathize with people who don’t think they’re fully human, but Lily and friends suffer no such moral ambiguity. The back half of the film is almost non-stop action, as they play a cat-and-mouse game with home invaders and roving gangs.
But eventually, that makes it feel a little sour, too. Assassination Nation leaves room for reconciliation and redemption, but only for a select few. For the most part, there’s no point in connecting with people who refuse to return the favor, because they’ll only take advantage of you. That’s a message that feels good to hear right now — and in a lot of cases, it seems to be true. But it’s also exactly the kind of ethos that Assassination Nation is supposedly warning against.
What should it be rated?
R for graphic violence, less graphic sex, and a lot of generally disturbing scenarios. If you’re looking for something more specific, there’s an actual series of trigger warnings (transphobia, attempted rape, “fragile male egos”) at the beginning of the film. It’s a weird moment that’s played semi-jokingly, but it’s honestly a pretty effective flash-forward device.
How can I see it?
Assassination Nation premieres in theaters on September 21st.