The awful action/horror/dark comedy Assassination Nation (filmed in New Orleans) opens with a title card giving the audience a trigger warning for a number of things to follow, ranging from violence to gore to fragile male egos. The rest of the film continues in the same hamfisted, painfully obvious and unfunny vein, concluding with a character lecturing the audience in front of an American flag.
Set in the town of Salem (the movie continuing to make the laziest, most obvious choices at every turn), the film focuses on four friends at a small town high school (Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Abra, and Suki Waterhouse). The high school and town itself seems populated exclusively by shallow, awful people. Eventually, a data leak occurs and the town’s conservative, family values mayor is revealed to be a cross-dresser. Then another leak targets the school principal (Colman Domingo) for taking pictures of his 6-year-old daughter naked in the tub. Shortly thereafter, the entire town’s data is leaked and all hell breaks loose with the four women turned into scapegoats.
The idea of how everyone has a dark side/hidden life has potential (would you be okay with all of your mobile communications and browser histories being leaked?). But instead of treading into uncomfortable gray areas, Assassination Nation makes the most obvious choices imaginable in terms of heroes and villains in its second half. It tells its target audience exactly what it wants to hear, whereas a truly daring film would make everyone a little uncomfortable.
One of the saddest things about social media is the way in which people of all ideological stripes behave online in ways that they would never act like in public. But Assassination Nation does not depict that. Just about everyone in the town is a grotesque, one-dimensional caricature from the get-go, so the horrible behavior seems pre-ordained. The principal is the one character who vaguely resembles an actual human being (and Domingo gives what is easily the film’s best performance), but he disappears less than halfway through.
As much as Assassination Nation wants to be a treatise on feminist empowerment, it manages to fail on that level, too. In the final act of the movie, the women became standard-issue avenging angel figures, which is just another form of male fantasy. Contrast this with Mad Max: Fury Road (still far and away the gold standard of feminist action cinema), where all of the women had distinctive personalities.
Lastly, these flaws could have been partially forgiven if the movie worked as visceral genre filmmaking. However, the action scenes are pedestrian with the stock villains (the football team, a fat sheriff’s deputy) easily dispatched. The women reference Straw Dogs, and Assassination Nation’s third act borrows heavily from it. Straw Dogs was also a morally queasy film (albeit for different reasons), but its director, Sam Peckinpah, delivered a master class in directing action scenes. Nation’s writer/director Sam Levinson brings no such panache to the table here.
There is a great movie to be made one day about how Internet mobs bring out the worst in humanity and turn otherwise sane people into bloodthirsty jackals. Sadly, Assassination Nation is just an example of how a terrible film can be made with a great idea.