'Assassination Nation': Film Review | Sundance 2018
Four teenage girls become the scapegoats for a town whose secrets are spilled by a hacker in Sam Levinson's horror comedy.
Energetically lurid, gratuitously violent and a hell of a lot of fun, horror-satire Assassination Nation is a throwback to black-comedy teen flicks of yore, but with a bitingly timely feel. Although redolent of a range of classic femme and queer-centric exploitation movies such as Heathers, early Gregg Araki movies and Japanese sukeban films from the 1970s and '80s that featured avenging schoolgirls, the key role played here by social media, identity hacking and resurgent “witch hunt” hysteria makes this feel very 2018.
Picked up by Neon and AGBO for a reported $10 million for global rights, this smart ensemble piece should easily recoup quickly via various distribution platforms, although its ideal setting is just how it was shown in Sundance, in a theater with a raucous, up-for-fun late-night crowd.
A second theatrical feature for writer-director Sam Levinson — whose debut, the ensemble-oriented comedy drama Another Happy Day also won plaudits at Sundance in 2011 — Assassination Nation has a pleasingly hell-for-leather, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink messiness that may not necessarily please some viewers. But that whippy, quasi-random fizz is evoked pretty much in the first few minutes with a montage-backed tongue-in-cheek "trigger warning," advising viewers to stay braced for "drug use, sexual content, toxic masculinity, homophobia, transphobia, guns, nationalism, racism, kidnapping, the male gaze, sexism, swearing, torture, violence, gore, weapons and fragile male egos."
The story unfolds in an unnamed state but a town called Salem, one of those too-on-the-nose details that occasionally irks. Like so many of her peers, 18-year-old high school senior Lily (striking and attention-holding Odessa Young) spends nearly as much time texting, sexting, Snapchatting, Instagramming and the like as she does breathing, so that hanging out with friends isn’t so much of a girly squeal-a-thon as the sharing of a space where all can parallel play contentedly as they stroke their phones. Lily’s dearest buddies are: Em (mono-named singer-songwriter Abra), who lives with her single mother Nance (Anika Noni Rose); Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), whose backstory is hardly developed; and Bex (Hari Nef, from Transparent), a young trans woman whose gender identity, at first, seems to be barely an issue to anyone in their circle.
Like so many kids of their generation (if you believe what you hear on the trashier TV shows), for these characters sex isn’t that big a deal, and monogamy barely registers for them except as a possible word to watch for on the SAT. Lily is nominally dating studly but dim Mark (Bill Skarsgard) but secretly sends a lot of salacious selfies to a mystery older man whom she may have slept with. Bex gets down with a handsome Latino footballer (Danny Ramirez) at a party who gives her the cold shoulder at school the next day, although she seems to take it in stride.
But things shift dramatically when someone starts hacking into the phones of prominent figures in the Salem community. First the dirty secrets of the mayor (Cullen Moss) are exposed, then it’s the high school principal (Colman Domingo) and then ordinary citizens suddenly find their text messages and private picture galleries have been shared with everyone in town. The authorities trace the activity to Lily’s house, and the citizenry, worked into a froth of hysteria and blood lust, turn murderous.
Sure, it’s a little abrupt and not entirely plausible, but the entire film operates in a sort of fugue state of semi-surrealism where such sudden shifts and changes of character are possible. Just to zhuzh it up with that extra dash of topicality, the thuggish townsfolk take to wearing red MAGA-style baseball hats, and the sheriff flatteringly calls them "good people," a sort of trigger word in itself since Trump’s remarks about the neo-Nazis who marched on Charlottesville.
With so much stuff going off, the core cast don’t really have much opportunity to stretch themselves, but nevertheless, Young and Nef stand out particularly with their more dimensional characters. As a technical exercise alone, Assassination Nation continually impresses, from the lapidary, Le Mepris-inspired cinematography by Marcell Rev to the expressive costuming by Rachel Dainer-Best and the wash of sound and music from composer Ian Hultquist and music supervisor Mary Ramos.
If there’s one key contribution especially deserving of praise, it’s the contribution of editor Eon Patane, who manages to build and release tension with immense subtlety throughout, and makes this feel simultaneously like a very long and a very short 110 minutes.
Production companies: A Bron Studios, Foxtail Entertainment, Phantom Four production in association with Creative Wealth Media
Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Anika Noni Rose, Colman Domingo, Maude Apatow, Cody Christian, Kathryn Erbe, Susie Misner, Danny Ramirez, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Noah Galvin, Joe Chrest, Jeff Pope, Jennifer Morrison, J.D. Evermore, Lukas Gage, Bill Skarsgard, Joel McHale, Bella Thorne
Director-screenwriter: Sam Levinson
Producers: David S. Goyer, Kevin Turen. Anita Gou, Matthew J. Malek, Manu Gargi, Aaron L. Gilbert
Executive producers: Steven Thibault, Jason Cloth, Andy Pollack, Christopher Conover,
Mike Novogratz, J.E. Moore, Will Greenfield, David Gendron, Ali Jazayeri
Co-executive producers: Milan Chakraborty, Brenda Gilbert
Co-producers: Matthias Mellinghaus, Harrison Kreiss, Katia Washington, Phoebe Fisher
Director of photography: Marcell Rev
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Editor: Ron Patane
Music: Ian Hultquist
Music supervisor: Mary Ramos
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Jessica Kelly
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Sales: Endeavor Content