To get the obvious observation out of the way first: as its every too-cool-for-school camera set-up and soundtrack choice flags, Assassination Nation really, really wants to be embraced as a cult movie, a 21st century Heathers by way of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. It convinced enough first responders at this year's Sundance to spark a bidding war, much as Nate Parker's ill-fated The Birth of a Nation sparked a bidding war last year. (And we wonder: is it the high altitude or the super-cool tote bags that causes journalists and distributors' judgement to go so on the fritz?) It is also, clearly, a film inspired by an unedifying real-world event and then written up by some graspingly opportunistic USC business graduate with his eye on $$$. The event in question was the so-called Fappening (grim name, grim business), the 2014 dataleak that saw intimate photographs of high-profile celebrities being accessed by slavering fanboy hackers and released online for all the world to see; the writer-director Sam Levinson shows us four undercharacterised high-school girls in the prudish backwater of Salem (geddit) taking up arms and fighting back after their own phones are compromised. An opening barrage of totally knowing trigger warnings tips us the wink that Levinson intends to wrestle with a whole bunch of hot-button issues: revenge porn, toxic masculinity, American puritanism. Yet a gap soon opens up between the fullness of the film's agenda and the dismaying vacuity of what's actually been put on screen: a hectoring state-of-the-nation address that gathers all the heft of the average Instagram post. Those tote bags must really have been something.
The key problem is a matter of tone. What drama there is here is presented in such a numb and affectless manner, shrugging listlessly as the hack's innocent victims are harassed by a growing mob into blowing their brains out, that it often seems as if everyone behind this camera is as glassy-eyed as the sheeple Levinson sets before us. A trigger warning for The Male Gaze is placed over a clip of that camera pursuing a young woman in short shorts through a neighbourhood in the middle of the night; the clip has been plucked - haha, no - from the middle of a later attempted rape scene. (The hack turns out to be the handiwork of some disaffected bro doing it very much "for the lulz"; those trigger warnings are put there for the self-same reason.) The rape-revenge aspect might have retained some potency if this script had any kind of handle on cause and effect; as it is, there's just no coherent sense of how these high-schoolers become such a proficient killing force, or why the mobs that we see have taken to the streets, save that the images they generate might say something to someone somewhere about Trumpism, and that maybe Levinson saw the budget-to-gross ratio of the Purge movies and thought "I'm having some of that". (Having unleashed this chaos, he has no idea how to wrap things up, so he sacks off the third act and sends on a marching band instead. Whatever.) In the entire 108 minutes, there are thirty seconds worth salvaging: a monologue a passing Bella Thorne gives in vivid mallratese on what the death of privacy means to her. Here, the film is still precise about what it wants to say, and finds the right, funny voice in which to say it.
Everything else is all over the place: leering over its sex and violence even as it strikes the pose of being concerned about the plight of young women, deploying artful lighting and slick one-shot sequences to mask and usher us past its glaring lack of integrity and heart. It's not some glorious exploitation throwback but a con job from start to end, and the bidding war suggests there are still plenty of suckers out there - or perhaps that we haven't witnessed a splurge-movie like this for a while, so it might retain some novelty in the marketplace. The closest film I can recall to Assassination Nation - itself trying to get something out of its system, and vomiting bile in the audience's laps in the process - was 2006's American Dreamz, that godawful "satire" of reality entertainment that proved to be the sourest thing the generally good-natured Paul Weitz (American Pie, In Good Company, Mozart in the Jungle) ever signed his name to. Here as there, we're left watching a movie born of multiple malaises, sweated out in the heat of a particular moment, which hasn't the strength to maintain any consistent moral or narrative line, and so winds up spreading those malaises further still. (It could have been contained at Sundance, with the right structures in place.) Maybe Levinson wanted to shove the worst of us right back in our faces - as certain episodes of Black Mirror have done, with far greater storytelling finesse - but those fundamentally punitive tactics didn't seem to take much hold among the Saturday night crowd with whom I suffered through Nation last night. (Grand total: five patrons, two of whom left after a half-hour.) The danger with making an empty movie denouncing an empty culture is that it winds up playing to empty auditoriums.
Assassination Nation is now playing in cinemas nationwide.