TIFF Review: ‘Assassination Nation’ is all bark, no bite

Assassination Nation
 
 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the Toronto International Film Festival; click here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our official preview.

As a rule, I normally distrust movies that try to hype you up on how fucking crazy they’re going to be — let’s call it the “A24 Horror rule” — but normally that sort of shit only happens in the advertising. The first few minutes of Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation mirror its first trailer perfectly: It attempts to provide the audience with a sarcastic list of “trigger warnings,” meant to emphasize how fucking salacious and wild the following 90 minutes are going to be to your child-like sensitive snowflake palates.

What Levinson fails to realize, however, is that these dares also apply to his final product, and that he has to follow up upon those threats in the actual film itself or otherwise the audience is going to be full of Clara Pellers, wondering where exactly the beef is. And, sadly, Assassination Nation is about as tasty and filling as an unflavored soy patty: It might look like the thing and wants you to think it’s the thing, but when that first morsel hits your tongue, you know you’re not getting the real thing. It’s about as edgy as a perfect sphere.

Assassination Nation follows a few weeks in the lives of four high school students — Lily (Odessa Young), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Em (Abra) and Bex (Hari Nef, easily the standout) — as they navigate the aftermath of a mass hacking that drove Salem, their small town, to the brink of insanity (that last bit sound familiar?). Lily’s our main character, though, and we spend the most time with her, dealing with her shitty creepy boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgard) and Nick (Joel McHale), the father whom she babysits for and regularly sends to sexts to. She’s smart, as an early scene between her and her principal (Colman Domingo) proves, and is obviously destined for more exciting things than just hanging around her small town.

So, when a hacker makes the town’s mayor pull a Budd Dwyer after releasing all of his private texts and threatens to take down the principal, Lily and the rest of the gang look on with the kind of bemused curiosity that all of us drama-loving shitheads would. This first section of the film is also its most compelling, given that so much of it feels grounded in reality — people behave like normal people would, even if our leads are witty and cloying in that kind of Diablo Cody way, infected with the affluenza of people who can afford to give a shit about social media all day. Nef’s got a solid sense of comedic timing and, unlike Waterhouse and Abra, manages to make an impression from the film’s sidelines.

It’s only when half of the town gets their personal information leaked that things really go to hell, both for the girls and for the movie itself. Levinson has absolutely no idea what he’s doing here, as he drops characters that he spends precious moments setting up at the start of the film like bad habits, and aims directly for the single blandest and most obvious route for all of this to go: Straight to the fucking Purge, including all of the goddamn masks, roving gangs, and “creepy” suburbia bullshit that was attractive in the hands of a genre social commentator who knew exactly what the hell he was doing. In fact, in order to get to this moment, he has to flash-forward a week to get to that point, when the most interesting stuff in the entire film — how a community gets to the point of attempting to kill these four girls over the contents of their iClouds — happens to be the shit he wants to skip.

It stretches the logic of the movie so far that it splits open the seams and reveals to us the gel inside of its plastic exterior. To what extent Levinson tries to make up for this emptiness with “style,” he is outclassed by other filmmakers at each and every turn, and the result is something that is so flatly bland and generic that it was safe enough for Refinery29 to slap down some cash and help with the distribution.

Anyways, eventually the girls get blamed for the whole thing, and the entire film boils down to a flatly staged and boring shootout between the girls and a group of jocks that might be the worst action sequence I’ve seen in a mainstream film in the last five-to-six years. Seriously. The girl gang just stands in the middle of the street and unloads on these motherfuckers in what is essentially a two-shot set-up. They just stand there, firing their guns, magically not getting hit or being forced to move, looking ripped straight out of something like Family Guy, with all of the badass signifiers strapped to their backs — katanas, larger guns.

You can tell that Levinson had thought of this idea and simply wanted to get to this one image, of these four red leather-wearing girls unloading on the folks that made their lives hell, but it’s a whole lot like the opus at the end of Mr. Holland’s Opus: Once you finally get to it, after all you had to do to get there, it’s going to be underwhelming. It’s then that you might think: oh man, are they going to go after Mark? Is the principal going to come back and help them fight off the mob? Well, you’d be wrong. The film pushes itself to its painfully boring and underwhelming ending on fumes, and what initially looks like it’s going to be a super fun action sequence unintentionally echoes the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, at least in the sense that they ran out of money and had to do something to finish the fucking thing.

Here’s a tip: If you want to see some boundary-pushing genre filmmaking/art about our digital lives, I highly recommend you check out Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam when it comes out later this year, or perhaps one of the Unfriended films, both of which are content with portraying people as they are and exploring the divide between the real and the illusory. You won’t get the same kind of huckster bullshit that Levinson and company are trying to pull with Assassination Nation, and you won’t have to suffer through a full two hours of bullshit trying to see if a filmmaker can pull his own head out of the internet’s asshole long enough to realize how odd it is that he’s putting his own fears about social media usage into the mouths of high school girls, given that he’s much more a Joel McHale than an Odessa Young.

What a failure.

Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Featured image courtesy of TIFF.