Nothing (or nobody) interesting is universally loved: Have you ever heard that saying before? Well, not every movie is designed to be widely palatable and that’s okay. While the profit motive has undoubtedly spawned the current PG-13 era, there are still studios and filmmakers willing to break from the flock and take their chances. Assassination Nation is a very, very dark comedy and social thriller that doesn’t pull any punches.
The movie focused on a group of high school friends who are affected by a data hack in their small town of Salem, which sent the entire town into a vicious frenzy. Sam Levinson’s script was surprisingly smart and socially aware. Messaging worked well throughout the film, but there was a disappointing lack of subtlety down the stretch. The movie was getting its point across with great effectiveness through the dialogue without the overt exposition…and it felt a little cheap to go that route in the end. Levinson’s direction produced a frenetic tone that resonated throughout the film. A window into the new exuberance of youth and glimpses of the interconnectivity caused by social media are at the forefront. Ron Patane had a bit of a rough assignment editing the film and trying to keep pace with the energy that’s captured on film. It’s easy to see there is a lack of cohesiveness in some moments because the pace of the film exceeds the primary story. The majority of the runtime is, unexpectedly, spent on the setup rather than the action. At the end of the day, this was a cautionary allegory. Not just about the dangers of social media but the socio-political climate we’re currently living in as well and Levinson captured that with frightening accuracy.
Odessa Young was a reasonably strong lead, Lily, considering she’s a relatively unknown actress. Stuck at the very center of the data breach, Lily has a lot to consider and Young had to convey a wide range of emotions in order to bring credibility to the whole story. Unfortunately, she was surrounded mostly by shallow characters with next to nothing in terms of depth or development.
The only other character besides Lily with any complexity at all was the young trans-woman, Bex, who was a part of the main group. She’s just one of the girls, except for when she isn’t and there are several instances throughout the movie where her gender identity takes over the central narrative. It was a bold move that worked surprisingly well in this setting. The role was played by transgender actress Hari Nef and, I won’t assume to know, probably hit close to home on a lot of issues raised in the film. Dealing with high school is difficult enough for plenty of folks but the extra layers of discriminatory behavior and abuse, even in a more progressive time, are far too prevalent. Nef was often times the best actress in the film and routinely stole scenes whenever she was on camera. It seemed as though there was a much larger story to unravel for Bex, if you were to strip away the fictionalized version of this story and place her at the center of it.
While there is no question that the ladies take center stage, Bill Skarsgård and Joel McHale play large parts in shaping the journey these young women are on. Skarsgård (who you may know as the clown Pennywise from IT) played Mark, Lily’s selfish and immature boyfriend. His insecurity is more than just a character flaw, it’s a catalyst for a much darker turn in the story. To his credit, the Swede came across very intense when he had to and didn’t need face paint to do it this time around. Similarly, Joel McHale showed a really scary side of himself that hasn’t been seen before. He typically plays at least something of a comedic role but his menacing turn was unexpected. McHale was surprisingly strong and certainly made it easy to dislike him. A more forward villain role may be something that suits him well down the road.
For a movie with such a strong title, it wasn’t as violent as expected. Sure, there was graphic violence and plenty of it at times but it wasn’t the gore fest I pictured in my head. It worked effectively as a horror film, relying on a mounting tension that explodes on this small town. Once the town is already burning, realism went out the window but, at that point, it was about having some fun as well. At the end of the day, this was a cautionary allegory about not just the dangers of social media but the social climate we’re currently living in as well and Levinson definitely tapped into that.
Marcell Rév made some bold choices with the cinematography, accentuating the backlighting brought powerful energy to particular scenes. There was a frenetic pace to the filming that had to match the tempo of the story, energy of the characters and the fast-paced digital world that was being satirized. The music wasn’t my style but it was used well and the score was strong when it needed to be. Ian Hultquist utilized a good deal of drawn out horn and string sounds in order to increase tension, using the lingering tones as something of a lit fuse. Several of the tracks have a more mechanical sound that evoked a slasher-esque feel and helped guide the movie towards the horror genre…which it rightfully should.
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to see both sides of the spectrum. This movie has understandably grossed just shy of $2-million at the box office so far. An October opening would have probably helped a little, but an independent film like this was always going to have a hard time. Additionally, certain hypergraphic elements were going to be a turn off to a large percentage of the movie-going audience. While the script actually addresses some important social elements, that gets drowned out against the increasingly cartoonish backdrop in the last third of the movie.
Recommendation: If you can find it, this would make for a good Halloween movie, especially if you’re finding it difficult to get tickets to Halloween. It’s not great, but there are some strong positives mixed in. (Watch the Red Band trailer below).