By Jim Slotek
In the grindhouse-movie days, you couldn’t go wrong with young women wreaking bloody vengeance on the men who’d wronged them.
For all its pretentions of wry commentary on the real-life social-media zombie plague, Assassination Nation is in that vein, the offense worth killing for being, not rape per se, but rampant, soul-crushing, online “slut shaming.” It’s as if director/writer Sam Levinson (son of the Hollywood veteran Barry) stumbled upon some dark corner of women-hating “bros” online, realized he was looking at a real-life monster movie, and ran with it.
There is, of course, a Grand Canyon-sized gulf between acting out your ugly id online and taking it to the streets. Cowardice is the essence of online bravery. And this horror story of how a town unsubtly named Salem turns en masse into a mob determined to lynch sexually-active young women, has that gap in logic at its core.
That said, Assassination Nation – which has been dubbed “Mean Girls meets The Purge” - is a stylish work of exploitation, like an expertly done YouTube video whose choppiness is its charm.
The movie is narrated by its protagonist Lily (Odessa Young), a teen who is sleeping with an emotionally-unreliable boyfriend (Bill Skarsgård) while carrying on a “sexting” relationship with an older man with the tag “Daddy.” Though her friends all talk “upspeak,” like characters out of Clueless, Lily is clearly sharp. As she keeps reminding us, she is “not a bad person.” She also displays artistic talent and defends her drawings of erotic nudes to her principal (Colman Domingo) with articulation and passion.
Most of her non-sex/sexting time is spent talking sex with her three BFFs, Sarah (model Suki Waterhouse), Em (Abra) and trans pal Bex (played by transgender actress Hari Nef of Transparent). Their social life is not apparently unusual - parties, hookups and defiant, fake-callous attitudes to heartbreak, heightened in Bex’s case, by sexual encounters with guys who make her promise “not to tell anyone.”
So far, so ten-times-more-horrific-than-pre-Internet-high-school.
But a bomb is about to be dropped in this dysfunctional town, in the form of a hacker who appears able to access anybody’s smart-phone or hard-drive. The mayor – an avid anti-LGBT family values guy – is revealed to be a cross-dresser. The principal’s phone reveals a porn addiction that doesn’t play well with an otherwise innocent picture of his young daughter taking a bath. “Daddy” is identified.
The fallback response is the Outrage-Machine-gone-nuts, with angry mobs demanding resignations of “perverts.” But soon it becomes clear that no one is safe from becoming the shunned as opposed to the shunner. So, those same mobs turn their hunt to the hacker.
How Lily, Sarah, Em and Bex become the object of their hack hunt is the least credible part of the movie. But it does put the girls’ backs to the wall, forcing them into an apocalyptic last-act of retaliation.
The idea that we are this close to anarchy via the release of our personal data is appealing to alarmists. But I feel like something more is needed in a cyber-world where anonymous attacks are virtuous instead of shameful. Action in the real-world still demands real action by people with names and faces.
But though I don’t take the plot seriously, I do appreciate it as a plot device. Assassination Nation may be empty calories as social satire, but it’s a dark, wry, of-the-moment story of run-amok panic that will entertain horror fans.
Assassination Nation. Written and directed by Ben Levinson. Starring Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse and Hari Nef. Opens wide Friday, September 21.