Articles - 19th November 2018

Assassination Nation doesn’t always get it right, but is a call to arms when it does

Words by Jack King

So many films rail against social media or the current political climate in the U.S., making it hard to access any form of counterculture in film. But that doesn’t stop Sam Levinson from trying.

In the very real world where America is facing a very real crisis of political and cultural identity – where a one-time reality star occupies the Oval Office as an increasingly embarrassing demagogue, dodgy mid-term elections face questions of corruption, and what is quickly becoming accepted to be the second Culture War has the country facing sharp ideological division – American political fiction is at a bit of a wall.

We’ve seen it with House of Cards, we’ve seen it with Saturday Night Live, and we’ve seen it with Designated Survivor: how can writers keep up when reality has become more absurd, and (lest I say it) more entertaining than the collective imagination of a writer’s room?


Some might scour at the idea of Assassination Nation being considered ‘political fiction’; I’m not sure, however, that there’s a better way to describe it. Based in Salem, Massachusetts, the film follows Lily Colson (Odessa Young), a fairly regular high school senior with a cute boyfriend, a close knit girl gang and adoring parents.

However, when an anonymous individual begins leaking private information – bank details, text messages, nudes – on a public Salem forum, the town descends into chaos and a falsely accused Lily takes the brunt of the blame. What begins as a tale of female oppression becomes, however, more akin to Mean Girls with guns, underpinned by a staunchly millennial outcry, one which calls for the reclamation of female autonomy from the greasy fingers of a Donald Trump or a Brock Turner via any means necessary.

Despite the high-school tropes, something is clearly off from the beginning: the opening sequence a tracking shot down a creepy suburban road, flanked by anonymous WASPs adorned in unsettling masks, a scene not unlike The Purge. A montage simultaneously spoofing and appreciating trigger warnings follows, Lily encouraging us to leave if we’re “fucking insulted” by an entire alphabet of distressing content – murder, rape, nudity.

Indeed, some of the filmmaking is genius: midway through the film, a house invasion is captured through a wonderfully gratuitous long take, framing the chaos through the windows and doors. Hari Nef brings the premiere performance as Bex, a no-shit-taking transgender girl with a hilariously Twitter attitude.

Between the music video-esque stylisation, the heavy use of social media as a narrative device and the strongly left-leaning political critiques, you can’t help but feel that an audience member who considers themselves a little more centrist, somewhat too analogue for social, or perhaps just a bit too jaded for youthful idealism, will be walking into (and out of) this one a bit lost.

It is imbalanced in its liberal message, and in this sense, makes a good case study for knowing one’s audience – if you’re even marginally against transgender rights, female empowerment or simply find identity politics abhorred, you will hate Assassination Nation.

That said, I’m not convinced that this makes it intrinsically worse: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a film with a voice which similarly criticised the American status quo, didn’t exactly provide a balanced examination of racial politics and yet is rightly considered an iconic staple of American cinema. Assassination Nation uniquely captures the disillusioned fury of America’s contemporary youth – self-indulgent and messy as it is.

 

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