‘Assassination Nation’ light on the assassinations

This is the final shot of the movie. It just cuts off here. Images courtesy Neon.

4/10 I came to see Assassination Nation for the ultra-violence. I found it severely lacking in violence.

In Salem, Massachusetts, someone is hacking residents. It starts with Mayor Bartlett (Cullen Moss) and Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo), but soon, half the town’s private information has been uploaded for public viewing.

Among the leaks, it is revealed that Lily Colson (Odessa Young) has been texting lewd pictures to a married man, for which she is kicked out of her home. After a weeklong timeskip in which apparently nothing interesting happened, it is revealed that the leaks were uploaded from Colson’s home computer, and an enraged mob finally comes for her and her three best friends.

I hated Assassination Nation, but primarily for sensory reasons — the sound design is absolutely awful, and the lighting also makes it difficult to watch at times. The sound track is an awful mix of indistinguishable bubblegum pop songs, but when those aren’t blaring, the slurping and soft squishing noises of kisses. They even go out of their way to pick up the sounds of someone eating an orange, at one point. It’s absolute torture to listen to.

Visually, cinematographer Marcell Rév commits at times to some fairly harsh lighting schemes — at its worst, one scene is lit by flashing police lights and seemingly nothing else and there’s a cop moving in between the lights and the camera, so you get a double strobelight effect with lights that are much brighter than they need to be.

If Assassination Nation weren’t so physically uncomfortable to watch, I wouldn’t have hated it. I would have merely disliked it.

This shot is probably one of the better examples of Assassination Nation’s harsh visuals — you’ve got the neon lighting cranked all the way up, which is nice, but the effects aren’t thought out, and it ends up being tougher to see. The film frequently uses some sort of camera trickery, but it’s mostly limited to flipping the camera upside down in motion. Really, the whole thing is less artistic than it is a combination of risque and incompetent. 

The story doesn’t work. Colson faces two waves of violence — one as a direct, explicit reaction to her transgressions with a married neighbor, and one after the weeklong timeskip in which apparently nothing interesting happened that’s an explicit, direct reaction to the credible accusation that she hacked half of Salem.

When she basically turns to the camera and says they’re about the same thing even when she knows they’re reactions to two different things, it feels weird. Underlying societal misogyny obviously affects what Salem residents think about the hacked material when they see it, as it affects every story that’s ever been told in this country, but the problems in no way build on each other.

The central problem with the way this story is told, I think, is that some very interesting things did happen during that week-long timeskip — the most interesting things in the entire movie. Over this week, the men of Salem dawn masks to protect their identities and begin hunting down their neighbors who they learned have wronged them. This was the ultra-violent period of the movie that I specifically came to see.

As much of a piss-off as it is that the timeskip passes over the most violent period of the film, it also passes over the point of all that violence — that only men are the perpetrators, that the violent reaction is an explicitly and specifically male response. When Colson and company finally take up arms against the mob, and when Colson calls on social media for the women of Salem to not take it anymore, it’s meant to be a revolutionary call to a literal gender war.

Walking out of the theater actually assuming that nothing of interest happened during the skipped week — if something interesting happened, obviously it would have been put to the screen, right? — I also had trouble accepting the notion that the angry mob waited a full week to turn on Colson and didn’t turn on anyone and everyone who was rumored to have caused the leaks, but now I realize they did, and I’m confused because Assassination Nation simply skips its entire second act.

When society finally does break down and violence finally does break out onscreen, it tends to be poorly blocked. When Colson and her friends massacre some boys who were about to kill Brex (Hari Nef) for her transsexuality, it’s all glamour shots and no blocking — as in, guns are magically in the hands of people who didn’t have them before, one of the girls sneaks up on the boys from the opposite direction of where she was just shot, unless you completely shut your brain off the scene is simply a mess, which is a shame and a mystery following a meticulously worked out home invasion just a few scenes before.

After the one scene where the girls save Brex, the movie just ends. After we didn’t get to see the week of madness leading up to Assassination Nation’s climactic sex war, we don’t even get to see the sex war!

The film, which claims to be a true story, is as near as I can tell a dramatic retelling of the Salem Witch Trials meant to transport them 325 years into the future of social media wizardry. It’s a fun concept, but one that could have been executed with much more panache and thought — many of the hallmarks of the Salem Witch Trials, the massive number of people accused and the mass hysteria, simply don’t manifest in Assassination Nation. Or maybe they were just restricted to the week that got skipped over.

Man, I really want that week back.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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