Film | Assassination Nation - bravely feminist and brutally honest - film of the year
When an anonymous hacker starts leaking personal files to 4chan, first exposing the indiscretions of the town mayor before releasing a torrent of private data pertaining to seventeen thousand local residents, Salem, Massachusetts looks set to relive the horrors of its past. While school friends Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef) and Em (Abra) dissect the resulting furore, trading memes and ruminating on their own secrets, their peers begin to splinter, their parents grow increasingly protective and pressure mounts on the authorities to identify and deal with the culprit. When Lily herself becomes embroiled in the escalating drama she and her friends find themselves the subject of an entire town's paranoia and objects of unrelenting retribution.
You often hear people ask what is likely to become of today's youth: how helicopter parenting, social media or political correctness might impact their development. Obviously, writer-director Sam Levinson has no better idea than the rest of us, and yet for all of its overblown bombast and extreme violence Assassination Nation seems ominously plausible and perhaps even prescient. Certainly, in the wake of the Sony Pictures hack, Russian election interference and Harvey Weinstein scandal the film could hardly feel more relevant. Not unlike The Purge films, Assassination Nation grapples with the darkest impulses of American hypocrisy, its protectionist constitution and retributive justice, and ambitions to satirise it from the perspective of the most commonly persecuted: women and minorities.
Assassination Nation is an incredibly potent and political film that targets its issues head-on, prioritising topics such as nationalism, transphobia and toxic masculinity with a series of trigger-warnings not just in the feature itself but also in one of the film's trailers -- it's a statement of intent and Levinson addresses every single issue raised. This might account for the fact that the film under-performed in the States upon its release in September, grossing just $1 million on its opening weekend -- with over three hundred mass shootings in the US this year alone it might have simply cut too close to the bone for Republicans and Democrats alike. Regardless, Levinson's film is essential if undoubtedly uncomfortable viewing. Both bravely feminist and brutally honest, it forces its audience to confront misogyny in all of its guises, from obvious sexual abuse to more insidious everyday sexism, in a grisly death match.
While most of the main characters may be female -- including an extraordinary turn from trans actress Hari Nef -- Levinson isn't, yet Assassination Nation still plays like an empathetic, emphatic and empowering battle cry. Indeed, in their review, SyfyWire even describes it as a feminist manifesto. And much like its inclusive message, restaging the battle for gender equality so that it needn't be fought across the gender divide, Assassination Nation is hopeful rather than hateful. Just as Levinson isn't interested in condemning men or idealising women (everyone comes out of the film with blood on their hands), neither is he seeking to pin the blame for all society's ills on social media, celebrity culture or the millennials who seem preoccupied with both. The villains here are both persecution and fear of persecution; it's all about pretense. The leaks themselves are fairly harmless; rather, it's society's reaction to them that is where the danger ultimately lies. There's no such thing as a bitch or a slut or a homewrecker, just as there's no such thing as a witch.
The film of the year so far, Assassination Nation doesn't end on a note of despondence or desperation but of unflinching defiance -- with a confident and talented woman of colour leading a marching band to the triumphant tune of Miley Cyrus' We Can't Stop. Because they won't stop. If V For Vendetta, another transposed satire that advocates activism, taught us that ideas could be powerful, then Assassination Nation insists that ideals can be too -- especially when motivated by survival. You shouldn't fear strong women or proud minorities -- but you shouldn't provoke them either.