Salem. Teenage girls. Mass hysteria. And death. Assassination Nation‘s parallels with the witch trials are not subtle. But they are bold and audacious, timely and provocative. This is a fascinating film.
It’s not a retelling of The Crucible, but it riffs on the themes: a society bound by rules so strict that no one really follows them; the chaos that’s unleashed when the underbelly is exposed. And the teenage girls, easy scapegoats for the mob. Why look for someone else to blame when there are sassy, sexy young women strutting about the town, showing off their nubile bodies and their high intellects?
Lily (Odessa Young) is our heroine: an eighteen-year-old with attitude. Her parents are Mr and Mrs Uptight, squarer than a box, but Lily has opinions of her own. She’s smart: when the school principal (Colman Domingo) takes her to task for submitting pornographic drawings for an art assignment, she argues eloquently; these are not mindless ‘shock-the-system’ images, but a considered response to the world she knows. Taken aback, the principal acknowledges she’s right, but asks her to concede: ‘This is high school; it’s not appropriate here.’
And that’s kind of the point of the whole film: that we all collude in pretending reality is something else. We wear our masks and present public selves that are very different from our private selves, and (some of us) outwardly condemn others who are seen to do the very things that we do too. Writer-director Sam Levinson clearly has something to say about this, and he’s not shy about saying it. The utter absurdity of modern American life is mercilessly exposed.
Things begin to fall apart in Salem when an anonymous hacker starts uploading everybody’s secrets: texts and emails, photographic caches, google searches, everything. It’s no longer possible to maintain the illusion that everyone follows the creeds laid out for them, and the fallout is huge. At first it doesn’t seem to matter too much: the mayor is rightly exposed as a hypocrite, standing on a ‘family values’ platform, denying LGBT+ rights, while secretly cross-dressing. But we soon learn that he’s a victim too, that no one can flourish in a world that condemns individuals when they reveal the truth about themselves.
And then, as more people have their private lives revealed, we discover that the mob is hungry for blood. Even the most innocuous photographs are seen as proof of corruption; we’re back in Crucible territory now: if you’re accused, you’re guilty; there’s really no way out. Eventually, inevitably, Lily’s own phone is hacked. She’s been sexting with a married neighbour, so the townsfolk have a lot to say. The baying crowd turns on her and her friends: they are literally out to kill.
This is a vibrant, pulsating movie, that screams its message loudly and proudly – and largely successfully. Oddly, I detest the first fifteen minutes or so, and am actually contemplating walking out of the cinema (something I haven’t done since Heat) but I’m glad I sit it out, because – once that frantic, in-yer-face, split-screen throbbing is over – it all starts to fall into place, and the opening makes sense in context too.
It’s a film for our times, that’s for sure. There are tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings that seem at first to be poking fun at ‘snowflakes’ but turn out to foreshadow scenes that show how relevant these issues really are. There’s a chilling moment where a mob is chanting, ‘Lock him up!’ about an innocent man: no prizes for making the connection here. I said it’s not subtle. But why should it be? Sometimes the most affecting art is created using broad strokes.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the girls become avengers – it’s clear from the posters, after all, but I have some qualms about the way in which weapons are used in this final third. It’s all a bit glamorous, a bit ‘good-guy-with-a-gun’ for my liking. But then, I suppose, the truth is this: in a society as rigid and divided as modern America, the suits who make the rules really had better look out. Because the guns are out there. And those they seek to victimise know how to use them too.