Set in the suburban sprawl of Salem, Assassination Nation is – in essence – an exploration of the infamous witch trials, but through a thoroughly modern lens. Think of it as Mean Girls meets The Purge, with a Spring Breakers aesthetic.
When Salem’s Mayor is hacked, the world becomes privy to his deepest, kinkiest secrets. Suddenly, other residents of the town are targeted. Their online activity – including search history, text messages, personal files and photographs – are leaked for all to see.
As sordid secrets are spread, the anxious anger in Salem reaches a fever pitch. Lives are ruined. Fear turns to fury, and the ruthless hunt for the hacker launches into a vicious, chaotic mania.
The film follows a group of four teenage girls with an unbreakable bond as they navigate the social codes of high school. Odessa Young (High Life), Hari Nef (Transparent), Suki Waterhouse (The Bad Batch), and strong newcomer Abra sizzle with an effortless energy as the fiery girl gang.
While there are frequent scenes that take place in and around their school, we rarely see the students in their classroom – and the presence of their teachers is negligible. This puts the entire focus on the social element of high school (the ins and outs, the friendship, the parties). It establishes a frame around their lives with one prominent picture inside.
Odessa Young plays Lily, our outspoken heroine. As our narrator, she’s the channel through which the film’s social message flows. Her woke, eloquent anger is sharp but measured – a perfect balance of performance and script.
Assassination Nation puts a strong focus on female sexuality and how it has been simultaneously fetishized and demonized. Women are encouraged to be sexy, but not too sexual. Confident, but not too loud. Always willing, but never slutty.
It’s worth noting that the fear of female sexuality was a large contributor in the creation of the Malleus Maleficarum and the witch-hunts that followed. So – as everyone knows – this had generally been a concern long before the invention of selfies and social media.
That said, technological upgrades have obviously affected the accessibility of – and pressure to provide – intimate photos and videos. For every nude sent, there are about a dozen photos that didn’t quite meet the unrealistic expectations. And as Assassination Nation so clearly shows, anything posted, published, or shared online isn’t really private (as the film states, “It’s very difficult to stop the internet”).
Assassination Nation also takes a hard look at American ultraviolence and hypersensitivity. The film begins with a brash list of “trigger warnings” in massive red, white and blue letters that punch each point. Leaked information is taken horribly out of context by angry mobs that ride on a wave of family values.
But despite the moral outrage, violence is the most natural solution to everyone in town. Domestic acts of violence are as American as apple pie, so naturally it’s seen as the best option to release anger and eliminate the problem. The American flag is prominently and frequently featured as a both backdrop and a beacon for these violent acts.
There’s quite a bit to unpack with this film, but everything culminates in a deeply gratifying third act that rings clear like a battle cry.
Director Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day) and cinematographer Marcell Rév (White God) navigate through a Technicolor daydream with a pulsing score by Ian Hultquist (Clinical).
There’s one particularly stunning scene that tracks action through a house from its exterior in one continuous moving shot, and it’s incredibly effective at making the audience feel like a helpless witness.
The supporting cast is peppered with familiar faces, including Bill Skarsgård (IT), Joel McHale (Community), Bella Thorne (The Babysitter), Colman Domingo (Fear the Walking Dead), Maude Apatow (This Is 40), and Cody Christian (Teen Wolf), with a rousing performance from Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls).
Now, you may find it hard to accept the idea that an entire town would turn on a group of teenagers so easily and so violently. But, let’s not forget that this wouldn’t be the first time. Assassination Nation’s flashy, modern, feminist retrospective on witch hunts uses overlapping layers of toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, slut shaming, and the immediacy of overblown online reactions to present the idea that maybe – just maybe – it’s not so far fetched.
Assassination Nations opens theatrically on September 21, 2018. Check out the red band trailer and poster below.
Viewed at TIFF 2018 as part of their Midnight Madness program. For a full list of films Midnight Madness 2018 films (including the world premiere of Halloween) click here!