With the end of 2018 just over the horizon, its second half sees a rush of films that, in their own individual ways, are the cinematic equivalent of the annual State Of The Nation address – and none of them paint pretty pictures. Black KkKLansman. Sorry To Bother You arrives early next month. Sandwiched in between, comes Assassination Nation, a movie that tells right from the start exactly what you’re going to get.
Expect, it says, sexual content, toxic masculinity, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fragile male egos ….. the list goes on and it’s accompanied by lurid, often bloody, images. It’s no spoiler to say that every single item on that list gets a large tick and writer/director Sam Levinson makes no apologies for that: the opposite, in fact, celebrating everything there and more, and couching its many targets in the story of four teenage girls, and one in particular. Lily (Odessa Young) is singled out as the worst of the quartet, all friends in the town of Salem, who exist in a safe social media bubble, posting just about every aspect of their lives – and I do mean every – but never thinking it could reach a wider audience. One that they didn’t want. But when a hacker gets into everybody’s accounts and circulates material that was only ever designed for private viewing, it causes a social meltdown: mob mentality rules, with mayhem and murder the result.
The name Salem has unenviable associations in American history: the notorious witch trials of the 17th century were used by Arthur Miller in The Crucible to legendary effect. And, while Levinson hasn’t set his story in the same town, he’s kept the name to sharpen his barbs as they head for his many and varied targets. Not that Lily and her friends – Lily herself especially – are little saints. They confront and challenge the established order, ask difficult questions and view things in black and white. And, when you see the behavior of their elders and supposed betters, you can’t blame them. The “good people of Salem”, as they’re addressed, are hardly spotless either.
It’s a grim portrait of America, one of a country fueled by hate and Salem itself is just a microcosm for less tolerant attitudes, a town that’s been untouched by the #metoo campaign so the teenage boys are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to their attitudes to women. The girls, on the other hand, have moved forward and are confident and assertive. An angry energy fuels the narrative but, as the final third approaches, there’s a definite sense of it running out of steam. From social satire and commentary, it descends into a gore-fest, with gallons of slippery blood and some graphic injuries to make sure it just keeps flowing. Given how voraciously Levinson attacks his subject for the first two thirds, it comes as something of a disappointment.
As those closing credits roll, you may feel you need a bath, but you’ll also have more than enough to think about – not just politically, but whether the film actually succeeded in hitting its targets and making its points. Prepare for mixed feelings.
Freda Cooper | [rating=3]
Comedy, Crime, Drama | USA, 2018 | 23 November 2018 (UK) | Universal Pictures| Dir. Sam Levinson | Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Colman Domingo, Bill Skarsgard, Joel McHale.