Slowly tracking through a house party where scantily clad teenage besties Lily, Bex, Sarah, and Em — played by Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse, and Abra — are gathered for a long evening of debauchery, the opening of Assassination Nation is an instant warning: you are about to experience an affront to the politically correct sensitivities over male gaze, rape culture, and obscene violence.
The teens’ parents are nowhere in sight, they’re dripping with confidence and sex appeal, their favorite song has them grinding on the dancefloor, and their crushes are “eye f**king” them from across the room. It’s lit.
But just as quickly as director Sam Levinson presents a hyper-sexualized look at these young women, he detours from his own gendered vantage point to show how the protagonists, by merely having a command of their sexuality and self-expression, are preyed upon by patriarchal lunatics who’ll swiftly resort to degradation (and even bloodshed) to intimidate them and everything they represent. In the end, Assassination Nation is a blistering yet effective exaggeration of our real-life dystopia in which self-professed young women are indicted because they challenge edicts that proclaim they should be maidenly and accommodating. If you can stomach it, there’s something there.
[Ed. note: This article contains mild spoilers for Assassination Nation.]
Assassination Nation goes from zero to one hundred in the blink of an eye, in part due to Levinson’s erratic depiction of vulnerable feminism in an unstable world, and the various micro-aggressions that lead to the movie’s heinous climax. In the beginning of the movie, Lily tries to argue her way out of Principal Turrell’s (Colman Domingo) office after she is caught drawing an erotic sketch. She claims the illustration is not about sex but rather female oppression — his male gaze just prevents him from seeing it that way. And Bex, who’s transgender, has a sexual encounter with her football star crush Diamond (Danny Ramirez) who doesn’t even bother to acknowledge her in school the next day when he’s with his straight cis jock friends. Both scenes establish how the girls are forced to confront male prejudices in their daily lives.
Social media, in which gut reactions to Instagram posts grossly outweigh any shred of humanity, compounds the brewing war. When Bex and Diamond’s text messages are hacked and revealed to all of the jock’s friends, their relationship downward spirals. Lily, who’s been having a sext affair with her married neighbor Nick (Joel McHale), finds herself publicly slut shamed and sexually assaulted by her own boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgard) once her photos and videos are leaked.
Assassination Nation piles triggers on the audience while also forcing them to reckon with an agitating theme: that empowered young women are subsequently victimized. There’s truth in that; time and time again we see outspoken women and those who deviate from conservative standards become targets of oppressors, even other women. In the film, Em’s mom Nance (Anika Noni Rose) is accosted by a woman in the middle of the street who’s just discovered that she’s sleeping with her husband. Still, this frustrating trope also perpetuates that women must literally get beat down and humiliated before they fight back, weaponizing themselves in the process.
Over 110 minutes, the movie escalates and escalates and escalates. A mob of masked men, some with police badges, terrorize the four teenage girls with hatchets and rifles. Mercy and any ounce of empathy are completely off the table while they hunt for Lily, Bex, Sarah, and Em as though they’ve committed an actual crime when the only thing they’re guilty of is the failure to abide. These men are so protective of the status quo that they will do anything — including murder — just to preserve it. So, faced with their mortality and unable to rely on the law to save them, Lily and her squad must become their own heroes, armed with weapons of their own to decimate the men who dare to get in their way in a furious, bloody battle throughout the streets.
It’s a brutal sequence to watch, yet at the same time wickedly satisfying. They conquer the patriarchy, at least for the time being, and save their own lives in the process. It’s a feminist victory. Still, the audience must contend with this morbid gratification as a result of extreme bloodshed and lives lost. We’re living in an age when graphic imagery is not only commonplace but absurdly popular. People are more curious to click on social media posts with horrid disclaimers than innocuous personal updates, even as many insist they’re anti-violence and advocates of self-care. Assassination Nation builds to that paradox: we enjoy vicious annihilation as sweet revenge, despite claiming to condemn the violence.
As wildly portrayed in the movie, our society is filled with contradictions. In a monologue, Lily proclaims how young women like herself are, from birth, forced to act and react by opposing pre-set demands: they need to keep their legs closed, but can’t be afraid to initiate sex when the time comes. The effect, at least in the film, is a generation of empowered girls and young women who are subsequently persecuted for embodying the authority they were encouraged to have.
It’s exhausting and counterproductive, which is why Assassination Nation’s mercurial picture of the world around us actually works. It offers no solutions, surmising that at this point we should resolve to the conclusion that there just might not be any. Perhaps the idea of a hopeless society sounds too unbearable to watch for nearly two hours. But if we can tolerate reality as we have for so long, the gutsy should be able to get through this warped reflection.
Assassination Nation is out now in limited release.
Candice Frederick is a freelance TV/film critic living in New York City. You can find more of her work here.