“Assassination Nation” opens with a trigger warning for the ages, cautioning viewers about the incoming sensory assault that includes everything from murder, bullying, torture, and “fragile male egos.” That’s no exaggeration, though the entire movie operates as an exaggerated riff on modern times. Writer-director Sam Levinson’s rambunctious, on-the-nose indictment of the social-media age fires off a million ideas at once — like a social media feed that won’t quit. And though it claims to explore how the town of Salem “lost its fucking mind” in the wake of a debilitating hack, its real target is all of us.
The most aggressive high-school movie in film history, “Assassination Nation” revolves around the plight of Lilly Colson (Odessa Young), an 18-year-old rebel who roams around with chic pals Bex (Hari Nef, “Transparent”), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) while engaging in a clandestine sexting affair with an older man (Joel McHale) and keeping her clueless boyfriend (Bill Skarsgard) at bay. With a single incriminating data dump, her secret’s out, along with everyone else’s.
The scandal starts with major local figures — the mayor, the principal — finding their deepest secrets revealed to the world by an anonymous online character who drops their most incriminating texts and emails onto 4chan. At first, it’s a local punchline for the rambunctious teens and one more thing to laugh about in the midst of rampant partying, but the hack eventually comes for them all. As secrets erupt, their society crumbles and angry men lash out. Inadvertently blamed for the hack, Lilly becomes the target of a dangerous mob mentality, setting the stage for a cartoonishly violent finale involving gun-wielding lunatics roaming the suburban backdrop.
Levinson’s movie careens at an overwhelming pace, with nearly every scene engineered to imitate the fragmented nature of today’s youth. Split screens, text message chains, and scrappy viral videos often crowd the frame when the girls aren’t gathered to discuss the hack’s damaging effects on their lives. Levinson struggles to sustain the sprawling ensemble, but often lands on exchanges that perfectly illustrate why it’s impossible for hacking scandals to be wholly understood by those who were raised in an analog world. Discussing damage control in the wake of the mayor’s online sexual antics, his assistant is told, “It’s very difficult to stop the internet.”
Indeed; even Levenson’s movie can’t contain its subject. While “Assassination Nation” intends to make an assaultive statement on the lunacy incited by the first online generation, the screenplay tends to mistake crass snark and cruel behavior as self-reflexive commentary. Every scene feels like it’s reaching for a big idea (the press notes begin by quoting Susan Sontag), and while the sprawling mayhem has its moments, the movie works best when tethered to the real world.
But once it erupts into the violence of the final act, the movie’s credibility derails. “Assassination Nation” devolves into a digitally savvy variation on “The Purge,” with gun-toting trolls descending on Lilly’s home seeking retribution. While this twist on internet abuse intensifies the movie’s themes, it’s too clumsily staged to gel with the events leading up to it.
Still, as Levinson swings wildly for the fences, “Assassination Nation” yields a modicum of payoff. The movie lands on the beguiling image of gun-toting girls exacting revenge on nasty men, which could register as a teen riff on “Spring Breakers” (it’s actually more directly inspired by Japanese “sukeban,” or “girl boss,” films of the ‘70s and ’80s). This twisted depiction of empowerment is the most extreme expression of an outrage culture emboldened by #MeToo and driven mad by the oppressive forces that created it. Toxic masculinity faces the ultimate reckoning when faced by a firing squad of young feminist rage.
It’s a messy conclusion, but one of the most timely in current cinema. (A decade later, its ludicrous extremes may look quaint, much like 2010’s Facebook con story “Catfish.”) The movie’s final punchline is a brilliant reminder that stability doesn’t have a lock on technological progress.
“Assassination Nation” made headlines after its Sundance premiere by scoring the largest distribution deal at the festival, a $10 million score by heavy-hitter Neon and the Russo Brothers’ AGBO. Considering the movie’s lack of major star power and wildly uneven storytelling, that might seem like a ludicrous gamble. But it should come as no surprise that the most money spent at America’s most prominent filmmaking showcase would be for a movie that indicts and celebrates excess in a single chaotic package.
“Assassination Nation” premiered in the Midnight section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It will be released later this year.