TIFF 18: ‘Assassination Nation’ is a Bloody Good Time With an Honest Thought-Provoking Message – Review
At first glance, Assassination Nation looks like the Heathers/Purge mash-up you didn’t know you needed, but upon further exploration is a lot more than that. The film depicts some truly gruesome realities as it is a social commentary on how we regard young women in the modern age. The film follows four teenage girls who are at the center of a modern Salem witch trial but instead of an accusation of witchcraft, they are accused of cyber hacking the entire town. Every little secret is revealed, including some of the girls’ dirty secrets, but thanks to the good ol’ fashioned patriarchy, these young women are blamed. This is not a social satire or parody, it is a dramatic take on a real epidemic.
Director and screenwriter Sam Levinson essentially takes a tale as old as time and dramatizes it. Being held accountable for the actions of their male counterparts is something women have become accustomed to. Assassination Nation is very timely as we are in this new #MeToo era where we are witnessing women risking everything by simply telling the truth. In this film, Levinson takes the basic framework of the Salem witch trials and applies to today, and the results are not that shocking. With the exception of the excessive violence, there is really nothing about this film the rings false.
At the center of it all, we have Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) as our primary protagonists. These girls will not apologize or concede to patriarchal standards. They will not be shamed into covering up or bend to any man’s will. They value their sisterhood above all things and will likely stomp the patriarchy down to the ground in neon coloured high heels. One problem this film has is that it primarily focuses on Lily and Bex, while the other two barely register in most scenes. They have their moments, but not enough to give us a sense of who they are. It is a failure to not have each member of the group given a chance to shine. It has been proven that a group of teens can be portrayed on-screen with each given unique characteristics and story. Despite this mistake, the young women anchor the movie.
Young and Nef are the standouts in the film, a result of them getting the bulk of screen time. Odessa’s Lily is like many heroines but presented in a fashion we rarely see. She is oversexualized because she wants to be. She is sexually active because she wants to be. She is artistic, expressive, and progressive. She is counting down the days until she can do something to dismantle the patriarchy that seems hellbent on controlling her mind and body. Young does a fabulous job showcasing the range of emotions a young woman has and makes her incredibly relatable, and the mistake she makes do not come across as callous or destructive; rather it’s human.
Lily and her friends are fallible beings who are far from perfect. Being young, they have their entire lives to make mistakes, and also learn and grow from them. The movie hinges upon portraying realistic teens and it does not ever stumble into the pitfall of making these young women accountable for anything, other than their own actions. Millennials know all too well how easy it is for society to blame everything on them, and Levinson makes it a point to highlight that this should not always be the case. On the flip side, Levinson also highlights how society encourages a lack of humanity from men as shown with Lily’s male classmates played by Bill Skarsgard and Cody Christian. They are encouraged by the authorities to be hostile, aggressive and murderous – all the while putting the onus on Lily and her friends for their mistakes and actions.
Levinson adopts a style that will speak to younger audiences. The movie has a common aesthetic with many music videos these days; lots of strobe and neon lights, and smoke-filled rooms. Our teens glide into their scenes with a soundtrack that perfectly reflects their mood and they dance till they drop. It’s electrifying and hypnotic, but the pacing of the story is off. While Levinson creates an exciting atmosphere and expertly cranks up the anticipation, there is too much time spent on setting up the audience to the clima and the third act is barely the cathartic experience we were promised.
As the town dives into Purge territory, our protagonists are left out of the action for most of it. They are the unsuspecting prey as the town begins to descend upon them. Every aspect of this film – the story, costumes, music, and cinematography are all pitch perfect for what Levinson is aiming for. However, the set up to an epic throwdown between the misogynist-filled town and our misunderstood badass teenaged girls needs to follow through on what is owed. Instead, audiences will be left somewhat dissatisfied with the ending.
All in all, Assassination Nation succeeds in what it sets out to do. Its a bold and daring approach to showcasing a real-world problem, and despite the pacing issues and the lacklustre ending, the movie utilizes it’s 108-minute runtime effectively. It is a film we are unlikely to see again, so it’s best everyone checks it out while it’s still in theaters.