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Movie Review

Assassination Nation review – Excellent Instagram ready satire wins its staring contest with the male gaze

Sam Levinson's second picture is a highlight of 2018, successfully updating the Salem witch trials for a disillusioned 21st century audience

Assassination Nation

The second film from Sam Levinson, son of Oscar winning director Barry Levinson of Rain Man and Bugsy fame, arrives on screen with a list of trigger warnings. Amongst the trigger points are transphobia, the male gaze, toxic masculinity, and rape. Although they are discussion points that should disgust any human being with a degree of empathy for their fellow man, they are presented in such a way to goad the demographic of focus: millennials – specifically female millennials.

Assassination Nation follows four teenage girls negotiating typical teenage predicaments, a mutual concept that has solidified their bond. Set in Salem, Levinson offers a contemporary pivot on the notorious delirium of the witch trials that took place three centuries ago, resulting in 20 deaths. In the internet age however, our four female heroines are not pierced by pitchforks but rattled by keyboards. The searing flames of a witch burned at the stake are replaced by eroded firewalls, delivering the point where quiet Salem shifts menacingly into gratuitous violence and male-heavy onslaught.

“The glimpses of those initial trigger warnings become climactic, fully-fledged truths in the film’s second half as the angry accusations turn the men of the town into an angry mob no longer lusting after the sexualised young women, but lusting their bloodshed”

After an anonymous hacker exposes half of the town’s darkest secrets and personal information, the trigger points send the skeletons reeling from their closets. Fragile male egos twist into rage and disquiet, positing itself as violence, torture, and sexism. And of course our female protagonists take the majority of its brunt, caught in the blind crossfire of an indignant townsfolk looking for someone to blame.

The film focusses mainly on Lily (Odessa Young). Popular and coveted by her male peers, she dates Mark (Bill Skarsgard), who conjures a completely different horror from his cult turn as the dancing clown, Pennywise. Lily has a secret she hopes will not be revealed by the hacker; she is cheating on Mark with Nick (Joel McHale), a married man whose child she used to babysit for. Lily spends much of her time sexting Nick, sending sultry selfies from the bathroom stalls of her high school.

Social media and the secrets they breed shadow the film throughout. Lily describes the effort it takes to make her photos Instagram ready, indicting the impossibly high standards of a generation obsessed with perfection. It’s a stark, toxic twist on the American Dream, a false conception of a youth culture thriving and surviving on likes, comments, and shares.

At parties, Lily and her best friends, Bex, Sarah, and Em (played by Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra respectively) grind up against each other under a waterfall of alcohol and substances. The young women rake in the likes, but its hollow elation; Bex has to hide her sexual encounter with high school football player Diamond (Danny Ramirez) because she is a trans woman. The social media tint screams freedom, but that same online audience imprisons and lambasts those who fall outside of the lines of outdated acceptance, where a man is masculine and assertive, where a woman is quiet and subservient, and more crucially, where there is no room for in between.

“The violence may feel like too severe a shift from the thoughtful first half but in a heavily hypocritical America, besieged by an ongoing love/hate of its Second Amendment, unnecessary violence becomes a necessary answer.”

When the massive file of personal information and incriminating secrets are spilled out across social networks, Salem erupts. The glimpses of those initial trigger warnings become climactic, fully-fledged truths in the film’s second half as the angry accusations turn the men of the town into an angry mob no longer lusting after the sexualised young women, but lusting their bloodshed. From here the fight becomes very surreal, almost unbelievable. A supremely stylish, Rear Window-style house invasion near the film’s close shows the hysteria and male ridiculousness in full flight. The men, masked to hide their identities and fuel their crowd mentality, converge on Em’s house, the central hub of our female heroines. This male invasion of the female space is a powerful turning point, as the online hatred shifts into the real.

It’s the most intoxicatingly poignant aspect of Assassination Nation, the attack on female existence and definition. Levinson outlines the male gaze in his list of trigger warnings early on and it becomes a penetrating stare at the film’s denouement. The young women are displayed and dissected, adored and criticised for their clothing choice and the supposedly bating lexicon of their social media posts. As a white male director, Levinson must be commended for delving so brazenly into such a subject, balancing sensitive topics with the grandiosity of its barbaric conclusion. The violence may feel like too severe a shift from the thoughtful first half but in a heavily hypocritical America, besieged by an ongoing love/hate of its Second Amendment, unnecessary violence becomes a necessary answer.

Assassination Nation is a fantastically confrontational film and it is one of the first films that successfully depicts the poison of our second lives lived online. In the 21st century, privacy has become a gossamer-thin sheath that is near non-existent, melting away with each 140 character execution. It is a phenomenon that has rushed in over a matter of years presenting our inner thoughts and insecurities to a numb, but hungry audience often unknown to the author. As we put more and more information in the hands of an amorphous online entity, the devilishly dreamlike world of Assassination Nation nears its breach of reality. And its hauntingly extravagant until the end; the closing credits scene of the black marching band performing Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ as they parade through the blood and guts of the morning after is the finest conclusion you’ll see in a cinema this year.