Assassination Nation

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Odessa Young and Hari Nef in Assassination Nation
"Older viewers may find it too much but it's spot on for what it's trying to achieve." | Photo: Suki Waterhouse

If you're going to make a film about witch hunts, you might as well set it in Salem. The shadow of The Crucible looms large over Sam Levinson's tale of teenage girls getting out of their depth, but this time around there are different lessons to be learned. Hiding behind the high school drama, the glamour and the gore is one of the smartest films about the internet made to date.

There's no conventional outsider angst here. Levinson unashamedly follows the popular girls, all of them impeccably dressed and living in big houses with every modern comfort, but by doing so he illustrates the inescapability of social pressures routinely applied to women and the fact that nobody is really safe from the effects of moral panic. Our four heroines are Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra). Initially, Bex's life seems to most complicated - the football player (Danny Ramirez) whom she's smitten with wants to sleep with her but only in secret because she's trans, a nasty blow to her self esteem - but Lily is the one who finds herself in serious trouble. Never quite getting round to breaking up with boring boyfriend Mark (Bill Skårsgard), she gets her kicks by sexting with a guy who turns out to be her married neighbour (Joel McHale). When a hacker exposes her secret and quite a bit of her body - highly personal selfies ending up on the internet - her reputation transforms overnight and she goes from the girl everybody wants to be friends with to the recipient of continual verbal abuse - and worse.

Copy picture

Levinson understands the teen dynamic well. Making extensive use of bright, primary colours and with a vibrant soundtrack, the film is sharply edited and maintains its energy throughout. Indeed, older viewers may find it too much, but it's spot on for what it's trying to achieve. It also features some truly brilliant cinematography (courtesy of DOP Marcell Rév, also known for White God) with one shot, in which the camera circles a house whose walls are mostly made of glass, among the best work of the year. This adds to the sense of visual dynamism and gives the film an unforgettable look.

Though hardly the first film to address issues around privacy, social media and public hysteria, this is one of the first to be written by somebody who grew up with them. The difference is palpable. Levinson actually understands what he's dealing with. The film only touches lightly on technical issues but it's realistic and doesn't try to hide ignorance behind woo. It's also culturally realistic, from its use of language to its depiction of the way that people think about the virtual and corporeal aspects of their lives - and the difference in that thinking between generations. It wastes no time on the pretence that the genie can be forced back into the bottle, nor even on contending that it should be, but focuses instead on how society needs to grow up and adapt to being able to see itself as it really is.

Central to this is the calling out of misogyny, which initially becomes visible in small ways and gradually grows more extreme as the story develops. Levinson's hyperreal style - again fully in keeping with the genre - does not imply that this shouldn't be taken seriously - everything he shows us draws on real world incidents. It's notable that Bex is the target of misogyny even from people who refuse to respect her gender. The scale and violence of the confrontations that follow is spectacular but, again, has real world roots. The nods to exploitation filmmaking don't detract from the point. Yet there's humour here to keep it from getting too heavy, and the last line puts everything in perspective.

A seriously impressive film passed off as flippant entertainment, Assassination Nation deserves a second look.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2019
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This is a 1000 percent a true story about how the quiet, all-American town of Salem, absolutely lost its mind.


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