Is there really such a thing as privacy anymore? This question is one of many asked by Sam Levinson in his second feature, Assassination Nation. But neither Levinson nor the film’s characters let you come out of the theater with an easy answer—that would miss the point entirely. Instead, Assassination Nation serves as a dizzying, aggressive, and controversial commentary on how desensitized we’ve become to violence in a world that won’t stop buzzing.
Assassination Nation follows high school senior Lily Coleman (Odessa Young) and her best friends Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) as they deal with the aftermath of a leak of personal texts, emails and photos belonging to half the population of their small town.
Lily has a lot to hide. She has folders full of nude photographs, hours of salacious videos, and evidence of a flirty relationship with her married next-door neighbor whose daughter she used to babysit. But she’s not the only one. The hacker’s first target is Mayor Bartlett, a conservative figure who inevitably folds under the pressure of the town’s public consumption and scrutiny of his private cross dressing photos. The high school principal’s career is ruined after naked photos of his 6-year-old daughter raise suspicions of pedophelia.
Like the characters in Assassination Nation, we live in a world where everything is filmed, photographed, and documented, but even with that—there still remains a sense of privacy. A high schooler can post a video of himself hitting a bong to Snapchat, but he knows that it’s only going to be seen by a handful of people. At the very least, he runs little to no risk of it being sent to his mom or future employers. But what happens when that privacy is lost? When everyone knows who people are sexting or what they look like naked, the public reaction can be ugly.
In Assassination Nation, that reaction manifests in violence.
There are many moments in Assassination Nation that make it seem like any modern high school movie: Lily and her friends drink at house parties, they feel anxious talking to the boys they like, and they have a universal disrespect of authority and the adults in their lives. Where the film diverges from the standard is in its visual appeal and its in-your-face commentary.
Assassination Nation is hard to keep up with at times. It starts with a trigger-warning filled montage that lays out what to expect in the jam-packed two hours: the male gaze, sexism, transphobia, abuse, bullying, blood, toxic masculinity, racism, and murder, to name a few. There are scenes where the screen is cut up into thirds, following three of the protagonists as they maneuver through the same party in different ways. It forces you to pay attention to the little details of teen existence: the silence, the sighs, the moments of over-thinking and self doubt.
After the hacking Assassination Nation takes a turn from the toxicity of high school to all-out warfare. People feel stripped of their privacy and, more importantly, they feel entitled to the bodies of those who might be responsible for the attack. They want to get revenge against those who’ve ruined their lives, and they’ll point their fingers at a vulnerable demographic: young women.
The protagonists of Assassination Nation are constantly undermined by their peers: they’re young, narcissistic, and confident in their sexuality. This scares men—not just high school boys but also police officers, teachers, and fathers. Female power can instill fear when it poses a threat to the patriarchy, the status quo.
But male fear never stops there. When men are threatened, or feel that their power might be compromised, why wouldn’t they assert their dominance in violent ways? They’ll try to take back what’s theirs from these psycho bitches using any means necessary. If they die, they deserve it, right? After all, they’re sluts. They’re young. They’re women. They had it coming.
At times, the film is ridiculous and over the top, especially in its lawless third act that mirrors films like The Purge where everyone wants a taste of violence without consequences. But that just exemplifies how messages are consumed nowadays. The most violent things are posted and shared over and over again—letting audiences grow more and more desensitized to images where women are often the objects of that violence.
Amidst the bloodshed, the true horror in Assassination Nation is how quickly the town turns on young women. But it’s not a film that kicks them when they’re down. If you can’t beat violent men who want to kill young women just for being promiscuous online—put on a red vinyl trench coat, grab a shotgun, and join ’em.
Assassination Nation is a lesson in taking back agency in a world that constantly tries to strip young women of it. But it also forces the audience to wake up and hold up a mirror to the hypocrisy in our own values that might just bring us to a place like this if we refuse to listen.