Starting a film with a list of trigger warnings for the audience is a risky business. There’s the chance that you’ll turn audiences off the film before it even gets started, or that the film itself won’t live up to the expectations set out by listing all the awful and disgusting things your audience are about to see. It’s fair to say that there will be people out there who will hate Assassination Nation from its first frame to its last. It’s also fair to say that it absolutely delivers on this list of trigger warnings, and then some. Here's the thing - director Sam Levinson doesn't care if you hate it. In fact, his film feels like it almost wants you to hate it. It’s here to say something about the world today, to be a symbol of things that are happening – and likeability doesn’t really come into it.
The premise is simple – what happens when a whole town’s private data gets leaked? Emails, texts, photos, bank statements – everything the internet holds on you is available for everyone to see. The first half of the film depicts the ins and outs of high school life in sleepy suburban Salem, and introduces us to Lily – a bold 17-year-old who enjoys wearing Fatal Attraction socks as much as she does debating the feminist integrity of her nude female drawings with her headteacher. Lily (Odessa Young) and her posse – Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are presented as the face of 21st century, bubblegum pink feminism. They emulate ideology that feminists have been fighting in favour of for centuries, but they do it whilst wearing short-shorts and enjoying their sexual freedom.
After the release of the town Mayor's private information (he’s a closeted cross dresser despite passing heinous anti-LGBTQ+ legislation), and the consequent leak of the school headteacher's info (far less incriminating but incites the mob all the same), half of Salem find themselves on the receiving end of a data hack. What ensues is chaos of highest order – neighbours against neighbours, friends against friends. When everyone has seen your dirty laundry (and it includes sending your boyfriend your best friend's nudes), no-one can seem to stop the violence. Mob mentality descends and the townspeople (at this point, mostly male brutes) decide they need someone to blame. That someone is Lily. With the metaphorical pitchforks at the ready, the Salem mob begin an unrelenting attack on the young woman and her gang, complete with scenarios which are missing only a few MAGA hats.
The last 40 minutes of the film resemble a bloodbath which Tarantino would be proud of. From classroom politics and explorations of teen culture, we turn to raw, unadulterated violence as the heroines of the story attempt to escape those who seek to murder them. Dotted with film references galore – Assassination Nation has been described as Mean Girls meets The Purge meets The Bling Ring meets Straw Dogs. In other words, it doesn't conform to typical genre boundaries. It works as a hyper-violent, no holds barred, gun slinging revenge movie but also as a film about true friendship and female empowerment. It's undeniably feminist and undeniably important for the times we are now living in.
It works best when it’s exploring those friendships and support networks that the girls have. Comparisons to Mean Girls and Heathers are actually pretty inaccurate considering that Assassination Nation shows the strength and unity of female high school friendships, whereas the former both seek to out these friendships as mere illusions. There’s a tendency to lump any film about teenage girls which toes the line of mainstream cinema as the new Heathers or Mean Girls (Mean Girls was described as the new Heathers on release, so you know), and to make this comparison really misses the point of what Assassination Nation is trying to say.
It’s inevitable that this film will be framed as a response to the #MeToo movement, but this is a cheap shot. This film embodies the utter rage, anger and pain that women have felt for centuries, living in a physical patriarchal hell. No-one needs reminding that Salem was at the forefront of the Witch Trials back in the late 1600s, and to its credit the film only uses Salem as an almost incidental backdrop rather than making overt comparisons. The town merely serves as a reminder that this has happened to women before, and it will likely happen again. This is what an actual witch hunt looks like - take note Hollywood men.
Particularly towards the beginning, individual characters are framed in vertical split screens – the dimensions of a Snapchat video, or Instagram story. It’s a small indication of how much every aspect of our lives nowadays are broadcast somewhere online, and foreshadows the destruction of the townspeople’s privacy that comes later in the film. Similarly, Levinson plays with the soundtrack - diegetic and non-diegetic sound switching in and out at various times, credited to mobile phones or sound systems.
Waterhouse, Nef, and Abra are all fantastic in their roles, but it is Odessa Young who carries the weight of the film on her pint-sized shoulders. It's a lot of heavy lifting for a young actor - emotionally and physically, particularly with the amount of full-on action sequences. The chemistry between the group is authentic, as is their desire to save one another and I'd be surprised if we don't see a rise in the sale of red PVC trench-coats in the near future - surely the only uniform we need for the revolution.
Perhaps the need for catharsis is why Assassination Nation has been heralded by so many female critics, myself included. There’s something truly satisfying about watching Lily, Bex, Sarah and Em seek revenge on the mob that have tried to destroy them, and it’s impossible to walk out of the film without feeling a sense of empowerment – however fleeting that feeling may be. The combination of young women fighting back, a killer soundtrack, and biting one liners of dialogue are the perfect concoction.
As I said before, Assassination Nation doesn’t need your approval. It’s not asking for a pat on the head or a 'well done'. It pushes you away, it’s upsetting and it’s uncomfortable. Yet, in my opinion, it is required viewing. The feminist revolution may not have started here, but we will live stream every last second of it.