In a single month I’ve seen three highly divisive theatrical releases that appear in their advertising to be fun, over-the-top parties, but are actually grueling descents into the depths of human cruelty & misery: Mandy, BlacKkKlansman, and now Assassination Nation. What’s challenging about that third title is how long it waits to reveal its true nature as an ugly, unforgiving portrait of modernity. The earliest stretch of Assassination Nation feels as if it were a conscious effort to update the Heathers style of teen-girl black comedy for a new generation – the same way that titles like Jawbreakers, Drop Dead Gorgeous, Mean Girls, and The Edge of Seventeen have in the past. What most Heathers descendants miss, however, is how genuinely shocking that film, which glibly joked at length about a teen suicide epidemic, would have been in its late-80s cultural context. Heathers is wildly funny, but it’s also genuinely upsetting in its amoral grotesqueries. Assassination Nation updates that dynamic by adopting the glib, dark humor of Twitter-speak, where all human experience – even the worst misery & public embarrassment imaginable – is fair game for a flippant, casually tossed-off joke. This weaponized, empathy-free brand of online humor sits on the stomach with an unease, only to gradually erupt into full-on, gendered violence once it escapes the anonymity of the internet and devolves into a very public display. Assassination Nation may be costumed like a glib, modernist Heathers descendant, but it’s ultimately less interested in making you laugh than it is in making you sick to your stomach. Once you catch onto that nausea being its exact intended effect, it’s an incredibly impressive work. It just asks a larger stretch of initial adjustment than you might expect – and even then its cruelty & misery never feel entirely comfortable, nor should they.
This isn’t a film with a plot so much as one with a premise. Assassination Nation reimagines the Salem Witch Trials for the Internet Age by filtering them through the user-interface cyberthiller horrors of Unfriended & the politicized home invasion thriller tones/Anonymous worship of The Purge. Four high school teens are unfairly accused of creating social chaos at the center of this tale, a conflict instigated by massive leaks of private citizens’ data on the Internet. Caught between conflicting demands of desire, control, disapproval, anger, and lust from the men in their lives (boyfriends, peers, authority figures, total strangers), these young women are given no room to exist in the public sphere without being targeted for perceived transgressions against proper femme behavior. When societal order breaks down and private online activity erupts into in-the-streets public violence, they suffer the brunt of the blowback as outraged, hypocritical men’s #1 target – the same role young women filled in Salem’s historical atrocities. The war that emerges is framed as four teenage girls fighting an entire town of morally fascist men (to bloody death), but that image is clearly meant to be emblematic of America at large’s sexually repressed, self-righteous war on all youthful femininity. By leaking private info from citizens’ laptops & smartphones, the film’s anonymous hacker is uprooting deeply ingrained, violently gendered shame – inspiring their targets to lash out in violence against a scapegoated social group that doesn’t deserve the blowback, but has historically received it anyway: young women. Like how this year’s The First Purge & BlacKkKlansman have examined America’s continued, blatant, public failures in its racial divides in the most unsubtle, uncomfortable terms possible, Assassination Nation does the same for our despicable handling of gender & sexuality. Its blatant confrontations of our sexual repression & gendered oppression are often miserable in their in-the-moment experience, but that feels like an honest reflection of where the country is right now in its cultural discussion of these topics.
My initial attraction to Assassination Nation was largely due to my undying love for technophobic cyberthrillers, especially ones willing to pull from the imagery of social media apps’ user-interfaces. The movie thankfully doesn’t shy away from that stylistic indulgence, finding plenty of eerie imagery in sexting, chain emails, Twitter rants, and WorldStar-style cellphone footage of psychical violence. Its greatest achievement to that end is an early party sequence collaged together in a triptych of vertical smartphone aspect rations, when that image is typically centered & letterboxed instead of tripled. For the most part, though, the film finds its Internet Age discomfort in the rhythms & dialect of online communication. This starts with the glib, callous Twitter humor of the opening act, as well as a long list of rapid-fire trigger warnings meant to scare off skeptical viewers who have no chance of ever getting on its wavelength (either for genuinely being triggered by its content or for finding its overall tone too obnoxious to stomach). What’s most impressive about the film’s technophobic finger-wagging is how it digs deeper than superficial concerns like social media addiction & curation of false online identity to explore less often discussed aspects of online culture: how the Internet is used as a cultural tool for misogyny and how online anonymity allows the average user to be loudly judgmental & self-righteous, but a leak of private digital information (photos, messages, porn search history) would reveal an entirely different reality of who we are as a culture. It’s easy to make glib jokes about a stranger’s private life online, but once public scrutiny is targeted at your own private data (especially the sexual variety) the mood immediately sours. As with all of life’s punishments & humanity’s cruelty, this is doubly true for women.
It would be misleading to say that the entirety of Assassination Nation is dour & devoid of fun. Twitter can be fun; it just turns ugly if you dwell there for too long or stumble into the wrong feeds. This film’s femme cynicism, Rainbow Shops fashion, music video aesthetics, and final moments of bloody revenge on The Patriarchy all find plentiful moments of pure genre cinema pleasure. Even its third-act home invasion sequence, which pushes its ugly, gendered violence into its most explicit extremes, can be uncomfortably pleasurable to watch in appreciation for the craftsmanship of its staging (pushing the 360° robbery-exterior of Spring Breakers to a new level of technical indulgence). Its cumulative effect is more sickening than humorous, however, matching the blunt, unsettled political climate of the world outside in its own unsubtle, confrontational terms. Besides maybe Revenge, I’m not sure I’ve seen another film match the extremity of its gender politics exploration this year, something that feels just as necessary & cathartic as it is unsettling. It’s a topic that’s now inextricable from the tones & tactics of modern life online, something the film was smart to recognize & tackle head-on. Its overall spirit is prankish & prone to bleak humor, but Assassination Nation is less of a comedy than it is a violent uprooting of cultural misogyny & sexual repression in the Internet Age.