If you've ever wanted to know what would go down if the Salem Witch Trials happened in the midst of the #MeToo Movement, then Assassination Nation is your answer. There's a lot to untangle in Sam Levinson's feminist revenge fantasy. An ambitious but somewhat chaotic film, Levinson invites his audience into Salem—an American suburb where real horrors lie in everyone’s cell phone histories, downloads, and clouds. Four young women stand at the center of Assassination Nation: Lily (Odessa Young), and her best friends, Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra). Despite her close bond with her friends, Lily is keeping one secret close to her chest: she’s carrying on an illicit affair with an unnamed older, married gentleman who she refers to as Daddy. Walking a delicate line between her hidden and public life, Lily is also trying to balance her increasingly fractured relationship with her misogynist high school boyfriend, Mark (Bill Skårsgard). Things begin to splinter for Lily and the rest of the town when an anonymous hacker starts dumping all of Salem’s phone and computer data on the internet en masse.
The leak starts with the homophobic mayor (Cullen Moss), who gets his hidden sex life -– including his Craigslist hookups with men, and his love for lingerie -- exposed, causing him to blow out his brains in a town hall. Soon after, the hacker sets their sights on the high school principal (Colman Domingo). One of the few Black faces in a mostly white town, Principal Turrell is run out of Salem after being labeled a pedophile for having pictures of his six-year-old daughter at bathtime in his phone. As the intricate secrets and search history of 17,000 people in the town become public, Salemites spiral out of control. The scandal eventually catches up with Lily and her older man when their sexting and sultry photos leak.
The exposure devastates Lily; she’s labeled a whore by her parents, attacked by her boyfriend, and she's preyed upon by numerous men in the town -— hypocrites who have all had their data exposed as well. The only people Lily can rely on are her girlfriends. As things escalate into an all-out war, the ladies decide that enough is enough. They take up arms and begin defending themselves at all costs.
The issue with Assassination Nation is that it crams a million different concepts and plotlines into a film just short of two hours. Beautifully shot with nearly every technique Levison could conceive of —including split screens and of-the-minute social media updates—it often felt like the film had a lot more style than substance. Also, Domingo, and Anika Nonki Rose, who stars as Em’s mother Nance, are given so little to do that they seemed disposable.
Still, Assassination Nation is not without merit. Using the perspective of teen girls, Levison examines violent masculinity, privacy issues in the age of the internet, transphobia, our lack of empathy, and the misogyny that still sits at the center of our society. Though the male gaze is not completely removed from the film, Levinson is careful. He does not trot nude female bodies across the screen nor does he make his audience suffer through any horrendous rape scenes, though he does push the envelope. Instead, he empowers his female characters. Even in their most vulnerable moments, they pick up weapons and use any tools at hand to defend themselves. In that same vein, Levison turns his lens on men and their continuous predatory behavior.
Assassination Nation felt unsettling, though Levinson exposed nearly every cruel and decrepit corner of our society, there was no real resolution. In fact, violence seems to be the only way the women in the film are able to feel empowered. This kill or be killed sentiment leaves the girls and their fellow Salem residents standing in the midst of a bloodbath of their own creation with no other means of perseverance.
Assassination Nation premiered Sept. 12, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film will debut in theaters Sept. 21, 2018.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.