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July 3, 2019

Assassination Nation

by Franz Patrick


Assassination Nation (2018)
★ / ★★★★

Sam Levinson’s well-intentioned but consistently firing on blanks “Assassination Nation” is the kind of satire that grabs you by the hair, slams your head against the wall multiple times until you see stars, and then rubs your face across the concrete floor. It is intentionally hyperbolic in order deliver its points regarding the dangers of technology, particularly social media, and the deep shallowness that many of us, consciously or subconsciously, define our lives by: selfies, #blessed, the illusion of perfection with every Instagram post, Tweet, and Facebook status update. Although masked by exaggeration, none of its points are particularly new, shocking, or surprising. It is merely drenched in empty shock value.

I was entertained by its brazenness—at least for about twenty minutes. Although clearly inspired by pictures like Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty,” Mark Waters’ “Mean Girls,” and Michael Lehmann’s “Heathers,” not once does it evince the high quality and class of its influences. The aforementioned works do not always function at an eleven and yet they are sharp, biting, even fiercely intelligent at times. We care about the characters—even the ones being skewered. We laugh at ironic turn of events. And by the end, we are inspired to look inwards: Why is it that although, some may argue, despicable figures are on screen, we relate to them anyway? But not here. During the end credits, I realized I could only name two of the four protagonists.

The two I remember are Lily (Odessa Young) and Bex (Hari Nef)—for completely different reasons. The former stands out because she is given one scene, the one where the high school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her into his office to confront her about her nude drawings, in which she is shown to have substance, a brain underneath the sex kitten facade. The latter is noticeable because of the performer’s physicality; she is not classically beautiful but she photographs like a movie star yet to snag a role so specific, one that is so made for her, doing so would elevate her to superstardom. Nef is green but I think there is potential there. Risk-taking filmmakers would be wise to take her on. Although Bex, the character, is not anything special, the actor is moldable.

The other half of the quartet—Em (Abra) and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse)—are mere decorations: to look beautiful and emote just enough for the film editors to be able to work around them. Nearly every time they are on screen, together or apart, there is a big question mark on my face, wondering, wracking my brain why is it they are necessary to the story. I am unable to remember their respective subplots at the moment. Did they even have any?

Moments of violence and gore are consistently gratuitous. While there is rising action that leads up to the hacking of 17,000 suburbanites’ accounts followed by a massive dump of information via texts and e-mails, a strong connective tissue is absent between cause of violence and effect of violence. Notice the “One Week Later” title card that appears in the middle of the film. Had this portion been elaborated instead of being treated as a footnote, the incomprehensible and highly repetitive mess surrounding the town’s extreme anger toward the four high school girls might have made more sense. Instead, during its climax, we are forced to watch sexualized teens sporting pink leather jackets either shooting guns or holding samurai swords. (These weapons, by the way, look cheap and fake… Is that the point?) It is supposed to be a critique of the male gaze, I guess.

Just because a piece of work’s aim is to hold up a mirror to our modern society’s hypocrisy does not make it immune to criticism, especially from a the perspective of storytelling. We get it: the town’s name is Salem and the project is supposed to be a spin on the Salem Witch Trials. But what else is there to it? While the film barrages the senses with split screens, electronic music, and blindingly bright colors, where are the characters worth putting under the magnifying glass? Effective satires command a strong center. Here, it is hollow.

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