Assassination Nation and all the images you see in this review are owned by NEON
Directed by Sam Levinson
Wow, people are really liking this, aren’t they? Unlike Mandy or The Predators, I actually did catch a trailer for this at some point so I knew it was something like The Purge but also about divulging personal information, so basically that episode of The Simpsons where the kids reveal all their parents secrets, only with a MUCH darker ending. Still, The Purge films are a pretty high bar to reach even if NEON has a pretty solid track record with their movies. Can this latest effort from a much smaller studio hope to compete with the franchise that got to the party way earlier and with a much bigger studio behind it? Let’s find out!!
Lilly, Sarah, Bex, and Em (Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, and Abra) are four teenage girls in the town of Salem; living out there days being the baddest crew in school who appreciate the little things in life; such as gossip, boys, and tearing down the patriarchy! One day a hacker starts leaking personal information of Salem’s citizens; starting with the corrupt mayor, but then moving on to the kind principal and then eventually everyone else. The secrets being revealed are causing some… stress you could say with some people opting to wear masks, others starting violent militias, and everyone just going all in on showing the worst sides of themselves. Homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, all of the above and more, just starts running rampant once the façade has been stripped away by the leaked data. One of the more prominent victims turns out to be Lilly who has her own secrets she was trying to hide and makes her a pariah to basically everyone except her friends who are standing with her, at least for now. What more could be revealed that could make the situation even worse than it is? Just how far will these people go to inflict pain on others for dubiously justifiable reasons as well as to cover up what secrets they may have themselves? Is it just me, or do things seem REALLY tense lately!?
I feel like… this is THE MOVIE. What do I mean by that? Well as a film critic, I’m always terrified that I won’t know what to say and that my opinion on a film is utterly worthless and could even be toxic to the overall discussion surrounding it. Are those rational thoughts? Who could say? Who could say if anything rattling around up there is the least bit rational, healthy, or the slightest bit interesting? At some point, a movie would come along where I would throw up my hands and just say I DON’T GET IT, but even THAT isn’t entirely true. Maybe I get it… but I don’t want to get it. I’ve confidently given hard passes to movies that other people enjoyed like Mother, It Comes At Night, and Hereditary primarily for being dour and deflating experiences that didn’t have the emotional resonance or engaging story to make those aspects feel warranted. This one though? I think it MIGHT have those qualities as it does so many things right that I should be appreciating, but the cynicism of it, the utter depths to which humanity sinks to, and the unflinching use of some horrifying imagery was just too much for me to appreciate even if the thematic backbone of the movie, the acting from everyone involved, and even the stylistic flourishes, are all solid and well done. Am I the problem here? Well I never thought that was the case with other movies I’ve negatively reviewed, and at the very least I hope I can explain my opinion in a thoughtful and constructive manner.
It’s actually not that hard to praise this movie, especially since I’m not ACTIVELY sitting through it at this moment which gives me a degree of distance. The characters are strongly written with our four main girls being complex enough so that you can appreciate them as real people with plenty of flaws while also seeing their humanity which is what every other character in this movie is failing to do. It’s also of SIGNIFICANT note that one of the characters is a trans woman (Hari Nef) who I think is one of the best realized characters like her that we’ve seen in a movie like this. Her identity is not swept under the rug, but she’s also treated as completely normal to everyone there even if privately there are moments where she still feels the sting of transphobia in one on one interactions. It’s great that her problems are not seen as separate or extraordinary to everyone else’s even if they are unique to her identity, and while there is some iffy stuff later on in the movie that happens to her, well it’s not much more iffy than what everyone else has to go through, and they refrain from ever dead naming her or showing pre-transition photos which is definitely a smart move even in a movie that’s as darkly cynical as this. It’s stuff like that and other similarly restrained moments in the movie that at least gives me pause to call this is an unmitigated torture show using the veneer of social commentary to cover up for fetishistic violence (*cough* The Girl Next Door *cough* no, not that one *cough*). The social commentary by the way is very on point for the current state of things with women’s rights being constantly under attack and the backlash to #MeToo revealing even more than was already obvious how much animosity men have against women as basically every horrible action in this movie starts with a man angry at a woman or someone doing something that’s quote-unquote UNMANLY. Now whether or not the depiction of such acts of violence is cathartic and necessary is probably my biggest sticking point here (I’d compare it to the discussion around the necessity of showing so many black and brown bodies gunned down by government agents in The First Purge), but if you do see the value in it then it is quite effective. I don’t think EVERYTHING in the plot works as well as it should as there are parts that feel too much like we’re supposed to be filling in the blanks, but there’s enough in there with enough twists and turns that make the story compelling even if I found myself not enjoying the movie.
It’s meant to be satirical and over the top, but I just can’t tell where the line between reality and fantasy lies, at least in the minds of the filmmakers. The movie pretty much STARTS with a politician shooting himself in the head due to his secrets being revealed (doing so on a stage with hundreds of people screaming and booing at him because of the info that leaked), and I just don’t know how to take that! Who are these people who are booing him and yelling at him? Is this a LITERAL mob, or do they represent someone getting hateful and dangerous messages on social media? It just seems a bit off base because THE BAD GUYS (as this guy is clearly representing) don’t GET this kind of heat in the real world. Right now Brett Kavanaugh is getting deservedly raked over the coals for the allegations against him for sexual assault, and even HE has a pretty freaking strong support base; one strong enough by the way that he may still get to sit on the highest court in the country. The movie is filled with such over the top mob rule mentality that can show SOME parallel to real life events (a rally in the movie is very reminiscent of the Unite the Right rally), but I just don’t see enough of the world I know of reflected in these situations for it to feel… constructive. I try to keep up with all the evil garbage happening in the world around me, and I feel it might be overestimating the power of these kinds of hate campaigns. They aren’t the easily fooled masses organically coming after anyone of any power level to the point of utterly destroying their lives or driving them to suicide. The ones who feel this the most are people already vulnerable who are targeted (mostly) by engineered hate groups. For all the hand wringing about THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA TO DESTROY LIVES OF POWERFUL MEN (which this movie absolutely shows), well Louie CK is priming himself for a comeback, as is Matt Lauer and I’m sure plenty of others. I just don’t see THIS degree of power given to social media in real life or at least as distributed as evenly between the powerful and the vulnerable in our society (one kid tells a cop to watch out, yet the reality is that cops can shoot black people without much more than a slap on the wrist), but then maybe that’s the problem. Of course I don’t know how bad it can get. Of course I can’t see the reality of a mob of people screaming at you for inconsequential photos because something like that has never happened to me! These are experiences that real people have to go through that I’m just not clued into, or at least not clued into enough to viscerally get the connections here.
Okay, that’s still not QUITE right because I DO see the connections here… I guess it’s just that I don’t like what I’m seeing. The whole movie reminds me somewhat of Rick and Morty; most specifically a line from the episode Vindicators 3. Rick turns out to be absolutely spot on about The Vindicators being as petty and vindictive as the rest of us (even if he REALLY pushed them to that point, not too dissimilar to The Killing Joke) and Morty tells him that “When you’re an asshole, it doesn’t matter how right you are; nobody wants to give you the satisfaction”. I wouldn’t call this movie an ‘asshole’, but the larger point is that everything that happens in this movie is absolutely something that can and does happen. Rape, murder, intimate partners being monstrous, lynching, just regular old bullying for no reason, and I can’t argue with any of the imagery in this movie being reflective of our world. I just… can’t get into that one sided of a mindset without losing a piece of myself that I desperately need to hang onto. The world is shit, most people are terrible, the masses can’t be trusted to uphold the values they claim to hold, we elect fascists, and we’re all capable of being evil. It’s all shit, I’m shit, and I don’t know what to do about it because I’m too shit to figure it out. Maybe that’s the truest truth to ever be told, and any attempts I make to try and mitigate those feelings and carve out a TINY reprieve from the horrors of the world around me are just a sign of my own privilege. I really don’t know, but to try and go on the defensive at least a BIT here, I can pretty confidently say that this is a one sided argument as the world they craft here doesn’t have any of the happiness, joy, or even mind numbing pleasantries that the internet and the rest of society has to offer. ALL people talk about in this town is gossip and shit talk based on what they read online, when the world I know has people talking about… I don’t know, wrestling! Is there a WWE in this world? Probably, though I assume it’s only point of existence here is to remind everyone what a shitty person Vince is and that everyone who works for him is guilty of perpetuating that awfulness. No stories about people finding owners of lost toys or a Go Fund Me that saved someone’s life. No one is uncovered to be a racists or a rapist and is removed from positions of power without resorting to vigilante murder. Everything these characters consume is shallow and without meaning when the people I follow and the videos I watch (oh look at ME getting on my high horse here!) do tackle important issues and try to engage with the world around them. Does any of that matter though when the awful stuff I already mentioned are realities for so many people? Can we legit justify ANY of the things we enjoy when so much suffering is part of the package? I don’t know, and while I HOPE that doesn’t make me a terrible person, I often feel that it does and this movie didn’t help with that. Then again, why should the filmmakers care? Why should ANYONE care to coddle me and make me not feel like there’s no hope in the world? I guess the answer to that question is no, but you know what? That ALSO doesn’t mean they automatically get a recommendation here because no one else gets to decide what I think about a movie other than myself, and frankly I still feel that it’s most obvious comparison has done this idea better.
If it wasn’t obvious already, there’s a lot of The Purge franchise in this movie considering it starts off with people wearing masks (they never really explain that) and the use of American iconography throughout as a subversive dig at the frailty of our society and its symbols. What I like about The Purge sequels though is that it’s MOSTLY unflinching about its depiction of how far humanity can fall when given just the right push, but it also shows that there are people who can rise above that. Frank Grillo could have left those people for dead in Anarchy, but he didn’t. Betty Gabriel runs an ambulance service in Election Year to help victims of Purge Night; even if they were purging as well. There’s hope in these movies which for me is the most important thing to do when trying to create a justifiably angry screed against society and the terrible people who’ve turned it into what it is today, and to discount or completely ignore that feels like something of a betrayal to all those fighting and clawing for a better world. Now there are some obvious differences between the two as well as some similarities that I’m having trouble really reconciling. For one, The Purge is mostly a cartoon and never really tackles subjects of rape and abuse. Where The Purge tackles subjects on a big scale through the means of over the top violence, this movie goes for more intimate atrocities that are prevalent enough to be on that same big scale and will surely be identifiable to audiences that maybe didn’t see The Purge films as particularly insightful. Also, while I say there’s NO HOPE in this movie… maybe that’s more of me refusing to meet this movie halfway. The ending isn’t THE WORST it could have been which is appreciated, and just because it’s also not THE BEST outcome doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have hope. The four main characters manage to be the heart of the movie and while society is a festering cesspit of horrifying egos, fragility, and utter rage that can boil over at the slightest provocation… at least there’s a sense of RESISTANCE to that even if the movie isn’t clear how… effective it ultimately is.
Clearly lots of people are getting something out of this movie and while I often have strong opinions about whether or not a movie is good, I usually don’t get on anyone’s case for liking a movie I don’t and that’ll definitely be the case here. Do I recommend going to see it? Sure. Why not? With something like this, I don’t feel like you should really look to me for “consumer advice” and just see it for yourself. Maybe you’ll be as uneasy about it as I was or maybe you’ll love the hell out of it and can’t possibly see why I’m so down on it. If nothing else, I hope I at least made myself a bit clear as to why this movie wasn’t a pleasant experience for me which at this point is about as much as I can hope for. Now if it’s all the same with you, I’m just gonna duck out of this conversation and move onto something else. I’m looking at YOU, Venom! I can’t wait to find out just what a straightforward train wreck you’ll end up being!