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Review: Assassination Nation

September 21, 2018

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation, which is opening in theatres today fresh off of playing as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness, is the first movie I have ever seen that opens with a series of “trigger warnings.”

These warnings, which are presented in a firmly tongue-in-cheek way and are ironically blasted on screen over brief flashes of some of the film’s most shocking images, foretell of the potentially “triggering” content we are about to see, ranging from “bullying” and “transphobia” to “toxic masculinity” and “fragile male egos.”

The obvious joke is that these trigger warnings are just as jarring as some of the actual content they are warning us about, not least of which because of the unavoidable and in-your-face way they are presented. For those that aren’t as up on the modern campus politics that define “generation snowflake”, trigger warnings have become ubiquitous at colleges and universities, and are actually backfiring in that they are making people more easily offended, and less equipped to deal with the actual issues.

Which is why they are such an appropriate way to kick off Assassination Nation, an entertaining if somewhat unwieldy film that swings a hammer at the easy target of modern outrage culture, where being offended is seen as trendy and virtue signalling is used as a form of social currency. The film takes place in the appropriately named town of Salem, and our narrator is Lily (Odessa Young), a teen girl who is seen as a bit of a pariah at home and school for her very liberal views on sexuality.

The story begins when an anonymous hacker leaks salacious photos and videos revealing that the “family values” mayor (Cullen Moss) is actually a cross-dresser who is having affairs with other men, rocking the town to its core. When the same hacker starts targeting other residents of Salem, including Lily and her trio of friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra), they end up having their worlds upended when their photos and texts are made public, leading to complete and utter chaos in the town. And then all hell breaks loose.

Directed with an up the minute sense of style by Sam Levinson, Assassination Nation is a somewhat over the top social satire that explores a lot of relevant themes, sexism and privacy in the digital age being chief among them. The film also shows how the mob mentality that has taken root in modern culture can lead people to carry out literal witch hunts, and how dangerous this can be when certain individuals – especially minorities – are falsely accused of crimes and become the subject upon which for people to project their misplaced anger.

The film blasts the hypocrisy of people who publicly preach about morality without even practising these values in their private lives, as well as the SJWs who claim to be compassionate, yet have no sympathy for those with whom they disagree. One of the film’s most interesting moments comes when Lily points out the ironic fact that the very same people who claim to care about LGBT issues, namely her friend Bex who also happens to be transgender, have no compassion for the mayor when he gets outed as gay and hung out to dry, simply because of his very conservative policies.

There are a lot of layers to the story, also touching on themes of bullying, abusive relationships, and the internet trolls who put people in their crosshairs and do it simply “for the lulz”, and at times it seems like the film is biting off a bit more than it can chew. The film has a lot on its mind, but I’m not entirely sure it all works, and some of the messages threaten to get lost in the literal bloodbath of the last act, when it becomes a slickly made but somewhat standard slasher movie.

Although it ultimately isn’t quite as deep as it seems to think it is, and could probably be best described as Mean Girls meets The PurgeAssassination Nation is still a fairly entertaining ride that is sure to resonate in these unusual times.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

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