Abra, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Odessa Young
(L to R) Abra, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Odessa Young

As I get older, my emotional reactions to cinema tend to fall into one of two camps: I am either dead inside (and I feel nothing) or I cry/startle/react at the drop of a hat.

The majority of my trips to the theater unfortunately fall into the former category. Although the film may be enjoyable or pleasant, a resulting lack of emotion can make the viewing experience feel stunted and (at times) unsatisfactory. It’s all worth it, however, when I get the latter experience; when the emotions run high and my body reacts (often uncontrollably) with laughter, tears, or sweat running down my spine, it is so much more meaningful. I feel vibrant and alive, captivated by the power of visual storytelling. These are the kinds of experience that make me wish that every film would make me feel something.

2018 was undoubtedly a great year for cinema. I was lucky enough to have several of the latter experiences (often courtesy of smart, provocative, female-driven texts such as Annihilation, Revenge and CAM). And yet, there is one film that I return to that has been overlooked in the collective consciousness, omitted from Best Of lists, completely buried in the end of year onslaught: Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation.

The following analysis contains mild spoilers for the film…

The film is about a quartet of teen girls who become scapegoats in their suburban hamlet of Salem, MA when a series of anonymous hacks reveals the digital footprint – emails, texts and the like – of several prominent political figures, community members and high schoolers. Tensions escalate with each leak and speculation about the identity of the culprit spills over into false accusations and violence. As mobs of angry (predominantly white men, many of them older, most of them presumably straight) succumb to mob mentality and turn to vigilante justice, the girls must fight back in order to save their own lives.

There are several reasons that Assassination Nation is such a memorable film, why it has burrowed so deeply into my consciousness and picked away at me: it has an urgent, vital topicality that is absent from so many of the other great releases last year. The film isn’t afraid to “go there” in its depiction of sex and sexuality, premarital sex, casual drug use, the hierarchies of contemporary high school, the political machinations of scandal and corruption, and the speed at which lies, misinformation and rumours can spread and take on a life of their own. This is a film that is embedded in modern day life in the most sensationalistic of ways. It even has its own personal, over-the-top style to prove it.

The opening, pre-title sequence is a masterwork of timing, sound effects, and editing. It perfectly encapsulates the film’s themes, its tone, its savage political satire, its confrontational “give no fucks” attitude and its hyper-stylized approach to handling its material. In one minute and 35 seconds, Assassination Nation anticipates the rest of the feature to come while simultaneously warning off uncertain viewers. This opening is Levinson’s signal to the audience: if you can’t handle this, leave now.

Adopting a trope from nearly every young adult literature and film of the last two decades, Assassination Nation opens with a voice-over monologue by its protagonist, Lily Colson (Odessa Young). Over a black screen, before the credits have begun or the title card is revealed, Lily’s disembodied voice intones: “This is the story of how my town, Salem, lost its motherfucking mind.”

As far as opening lines go, it’s pretty memorable. It’s also doing several things at once.

Besides the obvious reveal of the film’s setting (undoubtedly selected for its connection to the 17th century witch hunts conducted by irrational, panicked men that perpetuated violence against innocent women), this single line of dialogue offers insight into Lily’s character. Her tone is light, almost smoothing (in a bedtime fairytale kind of way), which is nicely contrasted by her use of profanity. Viewers will come to know that Lily contains multitudes: she’s sweet and affectionate, unreservedly loyal to her friends, but (like everyone) she also has a host of secrets that even her closest friends and family are unaware of. This first line of dialogue lays the groundwork for a text that is alternately sweet and vicious all at once.

The music that follows is Ennio Morricone’s “Violenza Inattesa,” a semi-orchestral accompaniment that similarly mirrors a fable, with its lilting “La la, la, la”s playing out over the image of a sleepy suburban street waking up. The camera follows behind a little boy as he peddles his tricycle down the middle of the road. As the camera tracks across the immaculate lawns and the picturesque houses, Lily’s words hang over the idyllic scene. It is quickly revealed that something is off-kilter in this domestic environment: all of the inhabitants – even the women and children – wear masks that cover their faces. It’s Norman Rockwell infested by The Purge, a deeply unsettling visual contrast that prompts audiences to wonder: What is going on here?

Laid over these images, Lily continues to elaborate: “Now I understand that you may think I’m exaggerating. That I’m being hyperbolic…that there’s no way an entire suburb could freak the fuck out to the degree that they’d want to kill four teenage girls. But I promise you…this is 100 percent a true story.”

The “truth” is that this is not a true story. And yet, in a year that has seen white supremacists and the alt-right emboldened, that has seen laws and policies for women, POC and LGBTQ initiatives substantially diminished or outright demolished, that has seen increasing violence, confrontation and bullying on- and off-line, it’s not difficult to see the “truth” in this tale.

What is going on in Assassination Nation is outrage culture, bottled and compressed into a bite-sized morsel. Bearing a striking resemblance to Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s neon-infused, gun-and-profanity-laden modern miracle, Assassination Nation is here to tell you what’s happening under your nose, even as it flips you off. It’s a work of white-hot anger, fully embodied and delivered like a punch to the face.

The fact that the little boy in this opening scene is finally revealed to be wearing an American flag mask confirms that Levinson’s film is unafraid of being labeled offensive or unpatriotic; it revels in challenging the morals, code of conduct and “good taste” of the nation and its citizens.  As if to hammer home this idea, Lily warns us “…it gets pretty graphic” and, cued by the “ding!” of a text message alert, white text on a black screen announces “*A Few Trigger Warnings.”

So begins one of the most strikingly confrontational movie montages in recent memory. Comprised entirely of brief snippets of out-of-context footage from the film, the “trigger warning” is a series of 28 declarative labels written in bold in the colour scheme of the stars and stripes: Bullying, Blood, Abuse, Classicism, Death, Drinking, Drug Use, Sexual Content, Toxic masculinity, Homophobia, Transphobia, Guns, Nationalism, Racism, Kidnapping, Murder, + (Attempted), The Male Gaze, Rape (Attempted), Sexism, (Def Sexism), Swearing, Torture, Violence, Gore, Murder, Weapons, and Fragile Male Egos.

Many of these segments include visual imagery that is confronting and genuinely upsetting and yelling, screaming, and the sound of gunfire can frequently be heard (the yelling is predominantly male; the screaming is predominantly female). Each trigger warning passes by quickly, however; the audience barely has enough to read and/or process one before it has been replaced by the next. The shortest is (Def Sexism) which passes by so quickly that it is barely readable­­­­. The longest is the last, Fragile Male Ego, which is entirely appropriate given the sex of the antagonists/vigilante mob and the vehemently feminist-nature of the text.

When the parade of trigger warnings closes, Levinson introduces (via Lily’s voice over) his protagonists. Lily (and the camera) spin slowly in a sparkly mirrored room lit with a blue filter. Close-ups of Em (Abra) and her “Feminist” necklace, Bex (Hari Nef) – playing with her hair – and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) follow. The deliberately slowed pace, the treacly music, and the fairy lighting is a deliberate reprieve from the agro, confronting montage; Assassination Nation seems to be offering up these young, innocent-looking, attractive girls as a contrast.

This, of course, is just another perspective. Another angle for Levinson to exploit.

Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra
(L to R) Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, Abra

The film cuts again, this time to a medium-shot with a circular frame (as though we are inside the camera). Before us sit the girls, lumped together on a single chair, in their iconic red trench coats inspired by Japanese film Stray Cat Rock: Delinquent Girl Boss (1970). The coats act not only as a defacto uniform, but as the iconography of a movement (though none of this will become known until the climax of the film when the girls truly come under attack). In this way, the quartet are presented in a distinctively different light from the innocent, skin-care commercial beauties of a few moments before.

As Lily continues her voice-over (“And to be honest, I don’t know if we’re going to live through the night”), Bex shakes her head angrily and jerks the camera away (to our left). Again, this minor metatextual moment, wherein Bex can hear Lily’s voice-over and respond to it by altering the point of view of the camera, reinforces the film’s self-aware nature. Assassination Nation – and its lead characters – are all very self-aware of what kind of text this is. Immediately afterwards a shotgun blast can be heard on the soundtrack as Levinson smash cuts to the title card (black with red font).

In the space of only one minute and 35 seconds, Assassination Nation neatly outlines its narrative premise, introduces its four protagonists and makes clear its allegiance to them (and, by extension, its feminist ideals), while also announcing its intention to satirize, offend, confront and polarize audiences. It is a masterful opening sequence that deftly lays the foundation of the film to come, which is one of the most important – and underseen – cultural/political films of the year.

Assassination Nation is out Dec 18 on VOD & DVD.