Movie review: Assassination Nation

An odd mix of satire and extreme violence tries to explore modern online life

Assassination Nation (Mladí zabijáci)
Directed by Sam Levinson
With Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Anika Noni Rose, Colman Domingo, Maude Apatow, Bill Skarsgård, Joel McHale, Bella Thorne

Life for a group of high school girls gets turned upside down when a hacker starts posting personal data in public. Assassination Nation takes a sharp but somewhat satirical look at modern culture, but also overplays its hand quite a bit.

The setting of the film is a town called Salem, and early scenes show that the residents have been whipped up into a modern-day witch hunt against a group of teen girls. The Salem reference is a bit heavy-handed. Salem, of course, was the site of real witch trials back in 1692.

The film then rewinds to a week earlier and gives the audience a bunch of “trigger warnings” for violence, sexism, male gaze, transphobia, toxic masculinity and other push-button issues, all while showing brief flashes of the offending subject matter.

The young women at the center of the story, including Bex, a trans woman played by model Hari Nef, spend virtually all of their time on their smartphones, messaging and reading gossip, even when they are together.

The plot gets going quickly when someone posts all of the data from the mayor’s phone online. The mayor apparently runs on a family values platform, but has a stash of kinky photos of himself.

This is just a taste of what is to come as more secrets of more people get exposed and people’s lives are torn apart.

The lead teen woman, who is narrating the tale, is Lily Colson (Odessa Young). She tries to explain to viewers how things boiled over.

Style is put ahead of everything else, and the characters seldom rise above the average cliches in teen movies of jocks and bullies and shallow women. Adults are almost all completely out of touch.

This is done with some edge, and the four lead women at times do have some insightful dialogue when they look up from their phones. The young male characters, though, are just cardboard cutouts.

The film switches gears rapidly partway through, abandoning all sense of logic. For some viewers, this may be the better part of the film as the foursome goes into B-movie action mode, inspired by Quentin Tarantino and Asian cinema. They even don outfits to match the girl gang in a Japanese film from 1970 called Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss.

The link between the two parts of the film is glossed over with a weak screen title saying a few days had passed, while the start of the film promised an actual explanation of how the rioting broke out.

One piece of information, in particular, turns the town's mob against Lily, but it should be obvious to the townspeople that something else is going on. That drags down the film’s credibility a lot.

While Assassination Nation has its exciting moments and can draw the audience into its premise despite some weaknesses and plot holes, it is too easy to see its inspirations.

Writer and director Sam Levinson, the son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson, clearly had an idea for making a film that could be pitched as Clueless meets The Purge, and never developed the concept any further than plopping two half-films together with a quick pseudo-explanation in between the parts.

Sam Levinson shows a sure hand at directing both drama and action, but a weaker skill in writing as with a little more effort the truly obvious plot holes could have covered over, and the end action given more coherent motivation.

The dry comedy and extremely graphic violence also can be a bit of an unsettling mix, as well. But the filmmakers luckily did warn those who can be easily triggered in advance.

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