ASSASSINATION NATION is a cutting black comedy about youth, social media, public shaming, hypocrisy, and fighting back. From the trailer, I thought I was getting the Purge starting because of social media, promising absurd fun, but it ends up far more than that, surprising me with its strong message.
The movie starts off edgy and visually stylish, focusing on Lily, a high school senior who does well in school but otherwise spends a lot of time partying with her friends and engaging in social media. When a hacker makes everybody’s private information available to everybody else in the town of Salem, all their dirty laundry is exposed, producing ruined lives, public shaming, distrust, and ultimately, and violence. When Lily is falsely accused of being the hacker, the town takes justice into its own hands.
Near the beginning of the movie, Lily observes how humans don’t really know each other, and as the viewer, we have the same distance from her and her three friends, who are all fairly thinly written. The first third of the movie is almost a stylized but otherwise cinema veritas view of an attractive, spunky, and privileged teenager’s life. As the vise closes in on her, we find out she’s not as cool as she’s portrayed but instead a young woman with growing awareness and fragile self esteem, trying to get by with a little help from her friends. She’s no bad-ass vigilante as portrayed in the trailer–until she’s pushed to the wall and is forced to become a fighter instead of a victim.
When the town loses its mind–producing a modern-day Salem witch hunt–things get a little absurd, but thematically the story reaches for a higher level, nailing the ugliness of humanity when it comes to public shaming for typical human mistakes, blaming the victim, using another’s mistake as justification for harm, demonizing those who are different, and hypocrisy and double standards. At one point, Lily says, “If you don’t like the rules, tear them down … You built this. Don’t take your hate out on me, I just got here.”
The result may feel off kilter to some viewers, who may see the film as trying to be too many things at once resting on a foundation of thinly developed characters and outlandish sudden avalanche of Purge-like violence, and then winding things up too neatly at the end. I think that would be fair. For me, I went into it expecting a simple Purge movie and got a lot more, delivered with a lot of great dialogue, social satire that isn’t maudlin or preachy, and confident and stylish directing. I recommend this one as light violent fun that packs a surprising punch.