This uber-contemporary tale of social media nihilism and suburban warfare is like the orgy lovechild of Fight Club, Carrie, The Purge and Mean Girls. Mostly plausible but also deliciously stylized, last year’s Assassination Nation is both a takedown of the “badass” school of female heroism and a screeching celebration of it.
Horror films lately have been all over the place, borrowing tropes and styles from other genres, creating interesting and often brilliant hybrids. From the start, we know we’re not in typical thriller territory here: there’s a narrator, and a sort of meta-cinematic fourth wall being hammered at until it breaks through entirely. Lily (Odessa Young) frames the story with her cynical words, and, in an opening sequence that serves up a foreshadowing appetizer, plops us down into the moment just prior to the film’s delirious climactic scene, letting us see how bad it’s getting and warning us of how bad it will get. “I don’t know if me and my friends will live through the night,” she ventures, and makes sure viewers know what they’re about to see is a true story, and a disturbing one.
“Trigger warnings” flash on the screen in red, white and blue letters (yes, there is plenty of commentary on what America is becoming) and they include not only attempted rape, murder, bloodshed, and kidnapping, but troubling content including homophobia, toxic masculinity and the male gaze. The film throws down its political gauntlet right at the get go, identifying not only its stance (though it’s not as absolute as it appears at first) but its arch backhanded lexicon. By offering content warnings, the film not only prepares the viewer for the story, but clarifies that the viewer is currently living through a moment when such a thing doesn’t seem all that strange.
We’re then thrown into the action: four high school seniors on their way to school, their slender forms clad in form-fitting micro-skirts and shorts, their hair long and loose, their cheeks gleaming with glitter. Lily, Em (Abra), Bex (Hari Nef, also seen recently in Netflix’s You), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse, also seen in The Bad Batch) are super judgmental of everyone but fiercely loyal to each other. These world-weary nymphets strut with confidence and speak with a louché hyper-ennui that telegraphs a been there-done that attitude to boys, parties and sex. “Any guy who doesn’t eat pussy is a straight-up psychopath” is an example of the fourth-wave feminism touted by these fierce young women, whose seemingly shallow routines are belied by their deep intelligence and social savvy.
The film’s self-awareness, as well as the characters’ sense of owning their world, is beautifully expressed when, walking down the sidewalk towards their school, Bex stops and exclaims “I love this song” when there is no music playing. “What song?” someone asks, and she holds up her finger and says “this song,” kicking off a non-diagetic soundtrack moment that is a wink to the audience’s momentary confusion. It’s as if these young women are shaping their own reality in real time for their own and for our pleasure; and yet, as the story will soon show, their autonomy and badassery is not as unflappable as they’d like to believe. Their breezy dismissal of peers they find shallow or pretentious, and their embracing of various pop culture icons (there’s a subtle homage to Carrie Fisher that happens so quickly you might miss it) makes for entertaining and authentic dialogue. The sense of nihilism in their banter, much of it conveyed via text messages and Instagram images (the new cinematic shorthand for contemporary, and especially teenage, discourse), is an oddly perfect foil to the flesh and blood danger they will soon be facing.
The four girls are mostly entertained when an anonymous hacker exposes their school principal’s secret (and hypocritical) sex life. But the hacker keeps targeting people in the community, exposing their nastiest secrets, and the resulting shame and mayhem leads some to commit desperate acts. Until they’re personally targeted, the girls are mostly just trying to deal with how they’re dominated and manipulated by boyfriends, fathers and teachers, and frustrated when their own needs aren’t being met. Then, when all hell breaks loose, it becomes clear that these young women are no match for the crowds of testosterone-filled, trigger-happy men in their midst…or are they?
The film ramps up into a somewhat-fantastical revenge fantasy that is nevertheless grounded in a very relatable atmosphere of terror. One thing the film explores very adroitly is the all-too-real threat of physical violence perpetrated by men towards women in the form of an angry mob. Given the online hacking context, this may be a commentary on the obnoxious world of incels and alt-right misogynists who terrorize women via social media. The film seems to be suggesting that an armed, slavering mob (that includes police) targeting teenage girls to mete out vigilante justice is not an unlikely scenario.
Assassination Nation, a terrifying, genre-bending film, owes much to horror classics both old and new, with nice nods to Kill Bill, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Carrie, V for Vendetta, and The Purge, but writer-director Sam Levinson also manages to create something fresh and thrilling with his tale of rage, revenge and redemption.