Assassination Nation: Er0str4t1c Fame
In 4th century BC, a man named Herostratus burns the Temple of Artemis to the ground. When he’s caught and tortured, he confesses that he did it for the infamy. To be remembered throughout time as the man who destroyed the temple. He did it, as the kids might say today, for the lulz. It actually became a crime to say his name aloud, punishable by death, for fear that it might embolden others to do similar crimes. And eventually, herostratic fame became a figure of speech: fame deliberately acquired through destructive means.
In Assassination Nation, a hacker by the name of Er0str4tus will attempt to do a similar thing to a small town named Salem. We’re dropped in medias res, with the town spiraling out of control. As Lily (Odessa Young) narrates with deadpan precision just how the town has lost its mind, we’re escorted down a typical American street. Except everyone is wearing masks straight out of The Purge. Lily comments that she and her three friends--Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Bex (Hari Nef)--might not survive the night and then we’re kicked backed to the beginning to see how this insanity began.
It starts simple and uncomplicated. The town’s anti-gay mayor has his data hacked and leaked to the entire town. Turns out he has been living a double life, hooking up with male escorts and taking racy pictures of himself in women’s lingerie. His life is ruined, but we cheer; another hypocrite nailed to the cross. The next data leak is a bit more complicated. He’s the high school principal. A family man, who has pictures of his six year old daughter in the tub. Something that parents across the country have and might pull out to embarrass their kids in front of their significant other. But it gets leaked and he gets labeled a pedophile. It’s all a joke. Until it’s not.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. A third leak happens, this one exposing half of the town’s secrets. Even the girls are not spared. Bex’s dalliance with a cute guy named Diamond (Danny Ramirez), who wanted to keep their tryst secret because Bex is trans, gets leaked. And Lily has been sexting with a married man, whose phone was also hacked. Then the town goes wild with fear and paranoia and good, old fashioned bigotry. And before you know it, the four teenagers find themselves in the middle of a shitstorm of people shouting, “we’re good people” while performing their own acts of terror. Salem becomes a metaphor for the powder keg of a country we live in.
I thought I knew what I was getting with Assassination Nation, but it's nothing like I imagined. The trailer was stylish and seemed to suggest a fun black comedy about the woes of living in such a connected world; all glitz and glamour. But Sam Levinson’s feature is a sharp and acidic thriller that is so mordantly funny and caustic in spots it hurts. In some ways, it’s about demagoguery; about how a couple absolutely terrible people can whip a town (or country) into such an insane frenzy that people who we’d consider “decent” do terrible things. In a world of fake news, he who screams the loudest controls the truth. And can use it to promote racism, homophobia, transphobia and a litany of other evils.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t stylish. It oozes with style; bright, neon colors. Arresting cinematography. Split screens. A thumping soundtrack. It effortlessly changes genres, sometimes in a single scene. It should be a tonal mess, but the competing tones actually keep it constantly churning and surprising. Dizzying comes to mind. What begins as a dark, high school comedy like Heathers slowly starts to show its true colors. As the events speed out of control, it becomes obvious that we’re going full grindhouse. A true midnight movie. Exploitation…with a side of social justice.
And when the violence begins, it’s full of blood and tension. The main set piece is a quick and dirty home invasion that’s more thrilling than most home invasion movies I’ve seen. Utilizing a fantastic one take tracking shot, Levinson and cinematographer Marcell Rév track both the unassuming women in the house and the intruders as they slowly descend on them. It’s a fantastically thrilling piece of genre filmmaking that escalates the tension and kicks the movie into a bonkers third act.
Assassination Nation is as subtle as a baseball bat to the head. It’s loud and angry. It’s more interested in creating this high pressure microcosm, lighting the fuse and then watching as everything explodes than being a deep character study. Yet there’s something completely cathartic in its deep nihilism. Having been on the internet during the height of GamerGate and seeing people I interacted with and considered friends get targeted on the daily, it’s thrilling to see women, particularly women of color and transwomen, get agency over their bodies and fight back. Ultimately, it doesn’t provide any easy answers. It seems to suggest that the time for subtlety is over. The subtext is stripped away.
What remains is just literal text, flashing on the screen. Pointing out each of our society’s problems, trigger warning after trigger warning.