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Review: 'Assassination Nation' is exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture us on grrrl power

Review: 'Assassination Nation' is exploitative horror that has the gall to lecture us on grrrl power
In "Assassination Nation," from left, Abra, Odessa Young, Hari Nef and Suki Waterhouse. (Neon)

The one good thing to say about the slasher pop satire “Assassination Nation,” a badly bungled attempt at social commentary from writer/director Sam Levinson, is that it’s certainly got spirit. This energetic, blood-slicked horror flick substitutes internet hackers for knife-wielding maniacs, and leaked nudes for slayings. It’s a chaotic jumble of movie references, cellphone footage, emojis, trigger warnings and edgy teen content.

But it’s the fumbled “feminist” commentary that is just embarrassing to watch. The filmmakers have the gall to spend nearly two hours assaulting the audience with sexualized violence, only to turn around and offer up a patronizing lecture on the contradictory social conditioning of women as some kind of grrrl power rallying cry, like it’s a novel revelation. Dude really tried to mansplain the virgin/whore paradigm in the midst of this exploitative claptrap.

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“Assassination Nation,” a mystery about a hacker targeting a suburban town, is a tortured, yet dumb metaphor for the Salem Witch Trials — we know this because the town where this takes place is named Salem. The idea seems to be that we’re still attacking innocent people based on rumor and hearsay. People are pilloried for the pics and texts found on their phone — from the mayor’s naughty cross-dressing, to the principal’s personal photos.

Attention quickly focuses on a quartet of smart, sexy, woke BFFs Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Em (Abra), and Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), because, well, they’re smart, sexy, rebellious young women hellbent on furthering their female pleasure agenda. Our heroine, Lily, makes impassioned arguments about the liberating and intellectual nature of nudity while simultaneously sexting nudes to the dad (Joel McHale) of a kid she used to babysit. Her friends hector her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarskard) about orally pleasuring her.

Dude really tried to mansplain the virgin/whore paradigm in the midst of this exploitative claptrap.


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They would ostensibly be the modern equivalent of witches, and Lily is first targeted by the angry mob that took down the mayor, the principal and the head cheerleader (Bella Thorne) when everyone identifies her in the sexy pics she sent to “Daddy.” Ostracized, she becomes a target for physical assault.

“Why do people see a picture of a naked girl and want to kill her?”

Good question, Lily, it’s one we’ve been asking for eons. She’s also falsely identified as the hacker, the cause of all this pain and discord.

Every now and then, there’s a flash of a great idea in “Assassination Nation,” whether it’s the revolutionary way the girls treat themselves as sexual subjects, or the bloody representation of female rage. But the logic and storytelling is too convoluted — conflating kink-shaming, homophobia and sexism without teasing out the nuance of how or why these individuals are burned at the stake by the mob.

That may be representative of the chaotic random evil of an anonymous attacker, and the hateful hetero white male mob, but visually, Levinson makes clear his target. He and cinematographer Marcell Rév, who establish a leering gaze directed at the girls’ nubile bods, take much delight in wringing every sexy moment out of attacking young women, shooting scenes of violence that are gratuitously pornographic.

This is common in the horror genre, but this goes above and beyond. And the difference is that Dario Argento never ended his films with a bone-headed lecture about feminism.

At the end of the film, Lily live-streams herself talking about the ways in which she’s been given orders as a girl, to be both sexy and pure, to never speak up or fight back, and for a quick second, an army of girls fall in line with their new leader. So the film both objectifies her and makes her deliver a speech about being objectified, and can’t have it both ways. That 180-degree turnaround is so contrived after the orgy of gore and booty shorts, that it can’t nail the landing on the flip from sarcasm to sincerity.

This film tries to create a B-movie heightened dystopian reality where the gals get their violent comeuppance wearing matching chic vinyl trenchcoats, but the violence is all too nauseatingly real and unsettling. It’s an ugly exploitation of sexual violence in a hollow quest to indict the way our culture pathologizes female sexuality.

“Assassination Nation” might argue that it’s about the internet mob, but its gaze reveals the true, lurid intention, while spewing misguided words to gesture at empowerment.

We see right through you.

‘Assassination Nation’

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Rated: R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use — all involving teens

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