Film Review: ‘Assassination Nation’ is a Timely Indictment of 2018 Culture

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The Salem Witch Trials shouldn’t still be relevant in 2018. And yet, here we are. In making the most timely movie of the year, filmmaker Sam Levinson fills his picture top to bottom with terrible people. His characters are awful human beings who do unspeakable things. They’re also easily identifiable as real people. Sure, some are exaggerated, but far too many are spot on. The worst of the worst in “Assassination Nation” will make your skin crawl. Sadly, too many Americans will also identify with them. Without question, you should be in the corner of the women at the center of this film. Unfortunately, a certain resident in the White House and like minded folks will see “very fine people on both sides” here. You might think that this movie goes overboard, but ultimately, it may just be slightly ahead of the curve. Give the worst impulses in our culture time. We, horrifyingly, might get there yet.

“Assassination Nation” laughs in the face of subtlety. The film manages to make “BlacKkKlansman” and “Sorry To Bother You” feel restrained by comparison. Now, those two movies are far superior, but they each speak to current issues troubling America. This, as it has been coined, is as if “Heathers” and “The Purge” crashed together in an orgy of satire. Though not on the level of the former, it’s much better than the latter, which should come as a relief. The movie gives you a trigger warning at the outset, and it’s not kidding. This is pretty extreme stuff at times. Luckily, it’s not all surface level. The film has something to say. In fact, it has a lot to say.

As we’re told in voiceover, this is the 1000% true story of how the little town of Salem lost its mind. At the onset, we’re spending time with Lily (Odessa Young), a teenager who, in any other movie, might be labeled a “bad girl.” Along with her friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), they drink, do drugs, have sex, and judge their classmates. Likable, they aren’t. And yet, you get the feeling that those around them are far worse. That’s proven accurate when someone hacks the town’s mayor, posting some cross dressing photos on the internet. A scandal erupts, one that brings out some pretty dark sides of folks. That’s only the start.

Next, the school’s Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo) has his phone hacked. He’s immediately judged for some questionable choices, but he refuses to just quietly give in to mob mentality. Unfortunately, the mob tastes blood. Then, the hacker strike again. When the whole town sees their private lives exposed, all hell breaks loose. Savage beatings, murders, and all around mayhem ensue. Essentially, it’s as if all the horrible impulses have been freed from everyone’s subconscious.

In short order, the town goes apeshit. At the center of it is Lily, who not only is a victim of the hacking, but also targeted as potentially the hacker. In particular, a number of jocks at the school take it upon themselves to find and kill her, with her friends also targeted. You see, as mentioned above, this isn’t just about revenge. The homophobia, racism, and other bits of bile have come to the surface. They’ve been given the thumbs up to indulge in bad behavior. Sound familiar to you?

There’s a sad irony found in the fact that repurposing the Salem Witch Trials for a modern time is wholly necessary. Scapegoating, punishing the “other,” and looking at women as something less than men, it’s all still in the news every single day. Just turn on the television. Victims of sexual assault are said to be asking for it. Xenophobia runs rampant in some parts of the country (and, you know, the White House). A cursory glance at what is happening in America and you can completely see why Levinson came up with this story. He was angry and needed to get it out. It’s to our benefit that he did.

The performances in “Assassination Nation” are necessarily broad, which in turn somewhat dulls their effectiveness. It’s satire, so going big is often required, but it serves some of the cast better than others. Odessa Young gets to exhibit the most emotion, which is a plus, considering she’s the main character. She manages to score your sympathy when the shit hits the fan. Young is best in show, though Hari Nef leaves an impact as well. Among the four central teens, they fare better than Abra and Suki Waterhouse, though they’re each effective. Colman Domingo also leaves a mark, arguably as the least abrasive person in the movie.

Among supporting turns, Bill Skarsgård chews the scenery as a leader of the murderous bros in the film. He’s evil, in a whole different way than in “It.” There’s also Maude Apatow, Joel McHale, Anika Noni Rose, and Bella Thorne on hand. They leave less of an impression, but they all serve Levinson’s vision. What he asks them to do, they’re able to achieve.

Where much of the discussion will take place in regards to this flick is in terms of what filmmaker Sam Levinson has attempted to pull off. He bites off a lot. Luckily, he handles it with confidence. From the director’s chair, he constructs an opera of bad behavior. Levinson is a mad conductor, never playing it safe. A montage of trigger warning material at the beginning sets the stage. Along with cinematographer Marcell Rév and composer Ian Hultquist, the technical aspects of the film are on point. Quick cuts, pulsating music, and full colors (especially red), abound. There’s a very distinct look to “Assassination Nation,” which helps set it apart.

Levinson’s screenplay goes big. Really big. At times, even too big. Still, you have to respect the ambition. At the beginning, we’re observing modern teenagers in all of their foul glory. Then, we’re satirizing modern culture. Then, it becomes a bit of an exploitation movie. Finally, there’s commentary on gender wars, taken literally. It’s occasionally a bumpy road getting to that point, but once we arrive there, the film ends on a perfect note. Bravo to Levinson for going there. It took balls.

Side note…during the press screening, someone walked out with about 15 or 20 minutes left. Personally, that made no sense, and was a puzzling decision. Additionally, the film began to make its final point around then, which led this individual to have a totally incomplete experience. It’s none of my business, but just was frustrating and a shame to see. In addition, with something as different as “Assassination Nation,” how can you not want to see how it ends?

Flaws aside, enough of “Assassination Nation” works in order to warrant a recommendation. You have to get on its wavelength, admittedly, but once you do, you’re in for a wild ride. Levinson really goes all out in producing this angry satire. You may love this film. You may hate it. Without question though, you won’t find it boring. Rage, satire, gore, and a pointed take on where we are in 2018 highlights this movie. It is truly a unique cinematic experience. Give it a shot and you’ll leave with something to talk about. That much is a guarantee.

“ASSASSINATION NATION” IS DISTRIBUTED BY NEON AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON SEPTEMBER 21.

GRADE: (★★★)