Assassination Nation is angry. So angry, in fact, there are times it can’t get the words out quick enough. Kicking off, rather cleverly, with some tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings about potentially offensive content (attempted rape, drug use, violence, etc.), the flick is imbued with the effervescent spirit of its teenage protagonists, talking a mile a minute and always looking utterly fabulous.
If this sounds like a bit of a headache, fear not, for writer-director Sam Levinson’s sophomore feature is much smarter and more tuned into the cultural zeitgeist than its wild, anarchic initial moments suggest. Levinson might go for the shock factor, but he has a helluva lot to say too, particularly about our often destructive online culture. He takes the old adage that nice girls are as good as dead (via feminist philosophers Bad Cop/Bad Cop) and runs with it, often to hugely entertaining effect.
The foursome at the heart of the story, Odessa Young’s coquettish Lily, trans actor Hari Nef’s tortured Bex, Suki Waterhouse’s effortlessly cool Sarah, and Abra’s wiser than her years Em, start the movie as the chicest chicks in school. They might not be cheerleaders like queen bee Reagan (a blue-haired, and frustratingly underused, Bella Thorne) but they don’t need to be. Online they rule, while IRL they stalk the school halls like they own the place regardless of their social standing.
Assassination Nation‘s easiest comparison would, of course, be the seminal Heathers, but where that film had a cynical, blackly humorous bent, Levinson’s 2018 high school horror story offers no easy asides or fun interludes. The movie is often funny, but its humour comes from how the protagonists droll repartee bounces off the walls at smoke-filled house parties, or interpersonal jabs ping on candy-coloured iPhones.
Rather than a Veronica type plotting their doom, these ladies find themselves at the mercy of a faceless hacker intent on sharing their most private information with the world, as well as the town of Salem (see what they did there?) at large. Soon, they, or more specifically Lily, are deemed to be at fault for everything that’s gone wrong and a bloody witch-hunt begins.
It ain’t subtle, but hey — those days are over. Women aren’t trying the softly-softly approach to get their point across anymore. We’re mad as hell, and we want you (men, and some women — like the kind who voted for Trump) to listen. If that means screaming in your face, then so be it. Assassination Nation sometimes feels slightly lost in a choppily edited barrage of hate speech, shared nudes, and barely-there clothing, but that’s because the way forward isn’t as clear as most of us would like it to be. Progress is messy.
Assassination Nation is endlessly clever, particularly when it comes to its sexy styling, which is presented with an utter lack of upskirting voyeurism to ensure the message of female empowerment is never in jeopardy. When Lily finds herself hounded by dudes on the street, her short-shorts are turned against her as she’s forced to run for her life, suddenly faced with the horrifying idea that she might have been putting herself at risk all along.
Via Lily’s ill-advised dalliance with a married man (played with quiet menace by a revelatory Joel McHale), Levinson again turns the usual victim blaming bullshit argument on its head. The young teen realises the error of trusting this older man when it seems like it’s too late, only to turn on him and fight back with every fibre of her being once his guard is down. It’s a queasy, uncomfortable sequence, played perfectly by Young and McHale.
His casting is interesting in itself, given the actor and comedian is predominantly known for lighter fare like the much missed variety show The Soup. Hell, even his character on Community didn’t go this dark. And yet, McHale is attractive enough to justify Lily’s interest in him. He doesn’t look like her father, so it makes sense that she craves his attention, his approval, rather than that of her well-meaning but useless boyfriend Mark (played by Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgård).
Early on in the movie, Lily’s friends tell her matter-of-factly that men who refuse to perform oral sex on women are basically sociopaths. It’s a brilliant line, made even funnier by the fact it was written by a man. When Mark does acquiesce, Lily lies there uncomfortably until she learns McHale’s pervy neighbour is watching her from across the street. The unfortunate reality is Lily is completely in charge of her sexuality — until she isn’t. Her desires are complicated.
Aside from being sex-positive and progressive, the movie is also, crucially, a celebration of female friendship. The core group of girls never turns on each other, never lashes out against each other. When Lily’s online affair is exposed, and her parents cruelly chuck her out of their house, Bex retreats under the covers with her (literally) and the two of them quietly talk things out. There’s no judgement of these young women, even when they make mistakes. Levinson is instead listening and understanding, and hoping we do too.
In contrast, Assassination Nation features a whole gaggle of macho pig teenage boys, who are hilariously shot in greeny-grey hues, pumping iron while discussing how to punish their friend for having the audacity to sleep with Bex, an openly trans student. Likewise, Mark attempts to shame his girlfriend for sexting another man by holding her down in the locker room showers and pulling her clothes off, exposing her for being a “slut.”
For a moment, there’s a worry that the film may stray into rape revenge territory. Thankfully, this is a rape revenge story without the literal rape. As Assassination Nation goes full-on crazy in its final act, with townsfolk pulling on their best Purge attire and gathering with assault rifles to hunt down and punish the girls, the foursome laze around watching kung fu movies in achingly cool red trench-coats (most of the movie’s marketing material understandably revolves around this instantly iconic image).
Levinson revels in the bloodletting, much like the brilliant Revenge did earlier this year, as the ladies rally to fight back against their oppressors. The chauvinist pigs we’ve watched plotting for much of the movie show their true colours as they refer to them as “b**ches” and literally string one up by a noose to hang her, witch trials style. Sure, it’s on the nose, but again, it has to be.
The final moments of Assassination Nation are a joy to behold. I genuinely had chills watching these four teenage girls suit up and go to battle. The idea of taking the long-held MRA fantasy — heading to the streets, armed to the gills, to make those women pay for not sleeping with them — and turning it gorily on its head is genius. Levinson carries off this most difficult sequence with aplomb, positioning the girls as bad b***hes out for redemption and the boys as cowering idiots begging for mercy.
Then, he outdoes himself with a final line that further confirms everything that’s come before about online culture, bullying, the futility of anonymous trolling and the real-life consequences of being a woman-hating prick online. It’s a fantastic reveal that ends the movie on the life-affirming, fist-pumping note it deserves. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s up there with the best closing lines in cinema and I mean that without a shred of hyperbole.
On the evidence of Assassination Nation, a gleefully violent, achingly cool, brilliantly constructed, and feminist AF call to arms, maybe men can be trusted to tell our stories after all (er, sometimes).