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Assassination Nation

I could count on one hand the number of movies I hated so much that I couldn’t finish them. One of them was The Legend of Billie Jean, which came to my attention through “Invincible” by Pat Benatar and “Rebel Yell” by Billy Idol. While the songs are untouchable ’80s classics, I couldn’t even make it through ten minutes of the movie. Not only was the plot simple and transparent, but the characters were full of the most cartoonish, obnoxious, outrageously sexist male pigs that I’ve ever seen this side of I Spit On Your Grave.

So here’s Assassination Nation, written and directed by Sam Levinson (son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson), made for a time in which sexist male pigs can be plainly seen acting more cartoonishly obnoxious than ever before. Throw in a shit-ton of blood and extravagant kills, an obsession with guns, social media used extensively as a plot device, a conspicuous visual style that’s distinctly modern, and a highly diverse group of women in our central cast, and it’s almost like Levinson set out to remake Billie Jean, but with 2010s excess in place of ’80s excess. And for better or worse, this movie was made with so few fucks to give that you’re pretty much guaranteed to either love it or hate it. The movie opens with a montage of all its various trigger warnings, for Christ’s sake.

Our stage is set in the town of Salem. It’s not any particular Salem, just a generic American town named in a hamfisted invocation of the famous witch trials. You see, the premise begins when some anonymous hacker targets the mayor of Salem (played by Cullen Moss), a notoriously anti-gay “family values” conservative who apparently made a habit of calling male prostitutes and posing for photos in cheap lingerie. The mayor’s entire online history gets leaked into the public record and the city is thrown into turmoil. Long story short, various officials and citizens are hacked and their salacious personal details are made public, until our main characters get involved.

The plot follows a crew of four best friends in high school. There’s Em (played by a newcomer named Abra), a black girl whose mother apparently has some kind of promiscuous reputation — the details are unclear. We’ve also got Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), who… um… honestly, I don’t know a thing about her. From start to finish, I kept mistaking her for the real main character (more on her later). These two characters are easily the weak links in the main cast and I’d be hard-pressed to find anything distinguishing about either one.

But then we have Bex (Hari Nef), the resident transgender of the group. It’s noteworthy how Bex’s best friends treat her as one of the girls with no problem — acknowledging her transgender status while wholeheartedly accepting without question that transgender women are women — yet everyone else seems to treat Bex as a freak. Even Bex’s love interest (Diamond, played by Danny Ramirez) seems to be ashamed of being sexually attracted to a trans woman and afraid of what would happen if anyone else — especially his fellow jocks — found out.

The filmmakers use Bex as an especially compelling device to explore the problems and baggage unique to living and growing up as a transgender teen. An especially prominent case in point comes with the death of the aforementioned mayor: Why should Bex give two fucks about the mayor and his problems when he wouldn’t even be bothered to care if Bex committed suicide or got murdered (as so many trans people are in constant danger of).

(Side note: Do you see this, mainstream Hollywood? An indie filmmaker with a reported budget of $1 million was able to find an actual trans actor to play a trans character. It’s clearly not as hard as you make it out to be. Try it sometime!)

Last but not least is our protagonist. Lily (Odessa Young) is likely the most progressive and sex-positive of the group. She’s very outspoken in her beliefs that sex and nudity are not intrinsically immoral, and society has made them so for arbitrary reasons. Unfortunately, her cavalier attitude towards sex has resulted in an unstable relationship with her boyfriend (played by Bill Skarsgaard) and an extramarital affair with the father of the girl she babysits (played by Joel McHale, earning back double or triple the points he lost for The Happytime Murders).

It’s interesting to note that in conversations with her friends and loved ones, it’s Lily who seems to have the most empathy for the victims of the recent hacks. Everyone else seems to treat the subject as a matter of gossip or even spiteful entertainment. Easily the worst case in point is Reagan (Bella Thorne), the airheaded cheerleader who freely and happily welcomes the death of privacy in our online world. No matter how it affects her put-upon best friend Grace (played by Judd’s daughter Maude Apatow).

See, the thing about online hacking is that it doesn’t just affect the intended victim. Every message has a sender and a recipient, and so a leaked message can be harmful to both. It’s not just the victim whose privacy is violated, but everyone the victim had any kind of online contact with. And when we’re talking about city officials and other people who are especially well-connected, the collateral damage can pile up very high and very quickly.

There’s also the matter of where to draw the line. Obviously, nude pictures sent between two consenting adults is nobody else’s damn business. Even if the nude photos are part of an extramarital affair, there’s no reason why anyone should know about it aside from the people involved. Moreover, of course having nude photos of a minor is sick and wrong. But what about baby pictures? Seriously, every parent has baby pictures of their child, and nude photos of a baby in the bath are not at all unreasonable or uncommon. But what if the child is a year old? Or two? Or four? Or six? At what point does it start to get squicky, and why?

It comes back to the issue of why we’re so squeamish on the subjects of nudity and sexuality. Moreover, it comes back to our all-consuming obsession with trials in the court of public opinion, calling for someone’s crucifixion over the slightest perceived fault. It’s not that we outright demand for our leaders and politicians to be completely spotless, but that’s what we end up doing when every conceivable excuse for a scandal elevates into calls for resignation and prosecution.

What’s even worse, when a woman’s private photos are leaked online through no fault or action of her own, she’s invariably confronted with men who feel entitled to her sexually and/or want to kill her. This is when Salem flies completely off the rails. There are so many components going into this perfect storm of violent chaos, I have to resort to bullet points. Here’s what we’ve got.

  • Paranoia over social media and the death of privacy
  • Slut-shaming and the persecution of women as sexual beings
  • Toxic masculinity and the fragile male ego
  • Obsession with guns and the possession of lethal force
  • Law enforcement officials who not only refuse to help, but freely engage in lethal force while hiding behind their badges
  • Waving the American flag and howling about freedom and morality through practices of mob mentality, torture, and murder
  • The us/them mentality that means the end of respectful disagreement and people treating each other as inhuman abominations because of differences in race, sex, politics, socioeconomic class, etc.
  • The compulsive need to record everything for posterity and recognition on social media

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, these are all commonplace trends in the here and now, only thrown together in a massive pot with heavy artillery mixed in and the heat turned up to 11. Thus we have a pitch black comedy satire, made to directly address the patriarchy built specifically by, of, and for small-minded cis-hetero white males. And the filmmakers pull absolutely no punches in showing just how hypocritical and self-defeating the system is when it’s built on so many double-standards for the appearance and behavior of women and people of color, to say nothing of the outrageous standards for machismo. The filmmakers show us one guy getting waterboarded, for fuck’s sake, and the camera is right up in his face when it happens.

It’s particularly telling how the vigilantes in this movie are only intimidating until they’re directly confronted. They’re men who think that they’re badasses who can tell anyone to do anything just because they have a gun and they know how to use it. But the truth is that they don’t become super-soldiers or ninjas, in spite of their power fantasies to the contrary. Rather, just like any bully, they immediately revert to sniveling cowards when faced with the real possibility that putting themselves into the line of fire could get them killed. Their ethics are only important when safe and convenient for them, and that’s a pretty damning statement to make about the bigots of today.

What’s more, it’s noteworthy how everyone in the back half of the movie wears masks. Presumably, that’s to protect the identity of anyone who got identified in any of the leaked cell phone footage, and/or to protect themselves against future hacks. It goes to show how paranoid this town has become. On the other hand, it also means that there’s no accountability, which has to be yet another reason for why everyone’s so eager to get with the mob mentality and the executions without trial.

With all of that said, it’s important to note that the movie doesn’t give much in the way of easy answers. While the filmmakers have a very clear agenda, they’re surprisingly even-handed with regards to the characters and who’s at how much fault. Yes, Lily was a victim of the hacks and she certainly doesn’t deserve any of the catcalls, death threats, or murder attempts coming her way. But she was sleeping around with someone she wasn’t supposed to and she has to own that. Likewise, as Lily’s friends all suffer through the violent chaos happening in Salem, it’s hard to forget that they were the ones who were laughing at all those adversely affected by the leaks, treating the leaks as entertainment until they themselves were the ones adversely affected.

While one side is clearly and unmistakably worse than the other, this is definitely one of those cases with a central conflict of “bad versus evil.” A crucial implicit point of the movie is that none of us are without sin, and that extends to each and every one of the characters. As a direct result, there’s little denying that our main characters have some karma coming to them and there’s every possibility that at least one of them will either die or do something awful. In fact, I was kind of hoping that all four of them would get killed off, if only so all the other characters would be forced to look at the smoldering wreckage they turned their hometown into and figure out what to do now that they got exactly what they wanted and they don’t have a scapegoat anymore.

The filmmakers raise the terrifying prospect that nobody really needs a reason to hack someone’s cell phone or go on a mass shooting spree. They’re not looking for anything logical, and they don’t even want to watch the world burn. As with any school bully, they’re concerned with nothing except for whatever makes them feel good in the moment, doing whatever just because they can. (“For the lulz”, as one character puts it.)

One character asserts that nobody is special and none of us can ever truly impact the world. The movie counters this argument by demonstrating how hacking a single random citizen can affect so many other lives and bring an entire city to its knees. But at the same time, it doesn’t feel right to say that any one person is the unimpeachable center of the universe, and the filmmakers use Reagan to make that point crystal clear. It’s possible that in this online age, the truth might be somewhere in between and we’re still trying to figure that out.

It’s really quite impressive how the film goes through so many distinct phases, taking us from one brand of crazy to the next. Each of the three acts feels like a totally separate movie, but it works because the filmmakers are surprisingly good at ramping up the insanity in a way that feels natural. That said, it only feels natural in the moment. If you asked me to draw a clear line from Point A to Point B, I don’t know that I could. Granted, that comes with the general chaos of so many cascading bad decisions happening all at once, almost all of it motivated by paranoia, bigotry, self-centered power fantasies, and other factors that are inherently illogical. Alas, that doesn’t exactly make for a plot that’s 100 percent coherent.

Everything about this movie is blunt. The party scenes are bombastic, the action scenes are explosive, the dialogue is aggressive, and the political statements are delivered with no room for doubt or misinterpretation. I have no problem understanding the bigger themes and the bloodier action scenes. But when I look closer, the details get vague. There are characters I don’t know much about, acting in ways I don’t completely understand, and connecting plot details are swept under the rug with a “One Week Later” time jump. As best I can figure, the movie was made for those who see this loud, violent, irrational setting as disturbingly plausible, and so the filmmakers task the audience with all the heavy lifting of figuring out how we got here. That’s not exactly solid storytelling or world-building, and it’s hard to believe that anyone but the most radical of liberals would be willing to suspend their disbelief to such an extent.

(Side note: All of that said, this still makes more sense than the world of The Purge. A descent into violent anarchy is a lot more plausible when it’s done via mob rule, as opposed to the ongoing participation of legislators and law enforcement.)

It’s tempting to blame the lack of character and plot development on the shoestring budget and the scant running time. And that would be so much easier to believe if Sorry to Bother You wasn’t still running in some theaters. There was another batshit political satire set in an upside-down reflection of our own world, but it did a far better job of crafting relatable characters and a solid plot without compromising its political messages. Granted, Sorry to Bother You had a reported budget of $3 million against the $1 million budget of Assassination Nation, but the former movie did so much more with roughly the same runtime.

I respect Assassination Nation as a bold, innovative, and totally uncompromising movie. I positively adore some of the choices with regard to camerawork and editing, the casting and portrayal of a transgender lead character is worth colossal bonus points, and this fearless brand of inclusive feminism is one badly needed right now. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were so focused on making their point in such a clear and incendiary manner that they skimp on creating three-dimensional characters and a coherent plot. Moreover, invoking the town name of Salem to invite parallels to the infamously lethal witch trials, and expecting us to buy into this bugfuck world of violent anarchy without question, comes off as more than a little arrogant. And with all respect to the good intentions of Sam Levinson, this is still a militant feminist movie written and directed by a straight white guy who happens to be the son of an established Hollywood filmmaker — even the slightest hint of arrogance is not a good look for him. (see also: Jason Reitman and Max Landis)

I absolutely, wholeheartedly recommend this movie for a rental at the very least. You may not agree with it or even like it, but the movie is still such a weird and exhilarating trip that you’d be doing yourself a disservice to miss out.

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