Second Chance Theater: Assassination Nation

It starts with a literal trigger warning

Welcome back to Second Chance Theater, where we will take a look at films that were either critically panned or commercially bombed upon their theatrical release or were never even given the chance to shine on a silver screen. Today’s entry comes upon the “recommendation” (I’m using that term very, VERY loosely here) of a friend of mine, who insisted I check this out as the director, Sam Levinson, is in the news again thanks to his new Netflix flick, Malcolm & Marie. We’ll browse that one next week, but I have to talk about his previous feature film, Assassination Nation. Mostly because it’s rare to see a movie where an auteur thinks he’s saying something profound but winds up falling flat on his ass.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The movie revolves around a high school senior named Lily Colson (Odessa Young), who enjoys hanging out with her three best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra, real name Gabrielle Olivia Mirville). Their lives are upended when a mysterious hacker starts uploading private data about the citizens of their small community in Salem, Massachusetts; first revealing that the anti-gay mayor of the town loves soliciting male escorts and crossdressing, then exposing private details of the Lily’s principal that people completely take out of context. Things start spiraling completely out of control when the hacker exposes half of the entire town’s private data, giving away all of the town’s salacious secrets. This is a bit of a problem for Lily on account that she’s been sexting with someone named “Daddy” while she has a turbulent relationship with her drunk ass boyfriend. Now when I say, “spiral out of control”, you think I mean scandal and ostracization right? While that certainly happens in the first half of this debacle, the film decides to take a left at the next intersection of Batshit Avenue, and decides to become The Purge for some criminally insane reason.

“Wait, wut?”

But alas, I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s start with the basics of why this movie just doesn’t work, and the characters are a nice big juicy target. Across the board, you are dealing with some truly loathsome people but the trouble is their awfulness does not make them compelling or interesting in the slightest. Protagonists like Walter White, Tyler Durden, and Tony Soprano are not “good” by any means, but they are all interesting because they make decisions most people wouldn’t make. Perhaps the aforementioned three are not a proper comparison to teenage girls, so let me remind you of Thoroughbreds instead where your two leads were borderline sociopathic women who were plotting to kill one of their own parents. These two characters are infinitely more reprehensible compared to Lily and her friends, and yet I found the leads of Thoroughbreds infinitely more compelling. Why? Because there are layers to their behavior, brought out in subtle ways at first before that film approaches its brutal climax where their madness truly takes hold. But Lily and company don’t go mad, they’re just…obnoxious little shits.

But their stated goals do not make them obnoxious, in fact I believe that the movie tries to behind their motivations in order to defend the creative choices that go on here. Lily believes herself to be a wise-beyond-her-years teenagers who has strong feelings about the differences between nudity and sensuality, while her friend Bex struggles to find acceptance for being transgender. On paper, these are sympathetic goals; but the movie completely fails these characters and their motivations by their dialogue. Every word that comes out of their mouths makes these women sound as vapid and vain as humanly possible. This may come from the fact all of these women were by written by a pretty callous director, who seems to fancy himself a champion of women’s causes. But the movie doesn’t expect these characters to grow from their abhorrent behavior to become mature, like a good film would; instead, Assassination Nation just wants you to feel sympathy for them just because as they are put through some pretty harrowing events.

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“Oh come on, we’re really sympathetic! We hate the patriarchy, that’s a character trait…right?”

Now, I should point out that by the halfway point of this movie, I didn’t hold any ill will towards it. Sure, every major character that I was being forced to follow were all jerks in their own unique ways, but I was willing to see where it was going with the interesting of concept of data leaks and violations of privacy. You see, some characters in Salem respond to the data leak in an uncomfortably real ways: parents disown their children, spouses retaliate against their cheating husbands, partners get physically violent against their erstwhile lovers and cheaters, and others scorn public figures for misinterpreting certain pieces of information. While unnerving, it was at the very least a compelling watch and I would have been interested to see where the film went had it continued in this direction. But Director Sam Levinson must have become bored by this drama and decided to subject his characters to a grindhouse-style horror movie out of friggin’ nowhere.

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“Huh. This was not how I expected my day to go”

Yes, this is were my earlier comparison to the The Purge comes in. The citizens of the town begin donning masks in public to protect themselves from physical attacks from their neighbors. And while you’re reeling yourself from the heavy handedness of that metaphor, the film then introduces the concept of militias run by disgruntled men who are upset their way of life has been upended by having all their secrets leak to the Internet. Trouble is, the movie fails to contextualize the motivations for these militias in the first place. We only know the motivations of two characters who have the over-the-top reaction to starting up a terrorist cell, and even then both feel like they’re overreacting. Maybe if the movie had introduced us to these men as living in a surreal world where such actions feel perfectly acceptable, I could have gone along with it as I did with stuff like The Lobster or The Killing of a Sacred Deer. But no, the movie firmly established we were in reality very similar to our actual one, so the masks and militias feel completely out of place and as if these characters went from zero to ninety in terms of responses to their dilemmas. It’s a tonal problem is my point, and the latter half of Assassination Nation suffers greatly from this cartoonishly violent turn.

“Cartoonish” is the word of the day here. Blood is spilling everywhere to laughable amounts, and your protagonists don’t really react like they would at the start of the film. Instead, these women transform into the main characters of a sexploitation flick that Russ Meyer would have made like Supervixens or Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Which feels like a lurch that these girls, who not an hour before were far more concerned with their social media accounts and their respective crushes, are now blasting away dudes with guns and katanas. Look, I’m all for female empowerment or even women in action roles, but it truly feels like two different movies were smashed together in such a way that it makes such violence feel inconsequential and all rather silly. Hell, it makes the much stronger first half of the movie even worse as whole subplots are completely abandoned like an anti-gay mayor killing himself while on television or the high school principal’s life becoming upended by people’s overreaction and failure to take into context certain messages and exchanges with his wife.

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“Oh you thought he was kidding about the katanas part?”

But the movie as a whole feels like a big, fat prank. Hell, the movie opens with a literal “trigger warning” of, and I quote: “bullying, blood, abuse, classism, death, drinking, drug use, sexual content, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, guns, nationalism, racism, kidnapping, murder, attempted murder, the male gaze, sexism, swearing, torture, violence, gore, weapons, and fragile male egos.” A good quarter of those warnings are useless by the way, because some of the warnings like nationalism, racism, and classism do not come into play at all. Then your four lead women rally all the women in town to a spectacular showdown against all the men when it decides to pull a No Country for Old Men and cuts away from the violent bloody confrontation. But the movie doesn’t end there. Oh no, because we have to get to a character who’s asked why he caused so much chaos through his actions to which he responds, “I did it for the lulz”. Then a high school marching band performs Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” as the credits roll.

That finale had to have been the biggest slap in the face and absolute middle finger to anyone who was remotely interested in following this stupid debacle. So, in response, I gave this movie an appropriate rating…


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