While teenage best friends Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) lounge in Em’s bedroom watching Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1970 exploitation flick Stray Cat Rock and wearing red raincoats in imitation of the film’s protagonists, masked men surround the house. The camera drifts down halls and through empty rooms, looping in silence around the suburban house and up to the eaves to peer in at the distracted girls. Slowly, as first Em and then Sarah is taken hostage, the tension grows. More men slip in through jimmied windows and doors left ajar. One by one, they begin snatching the teens.
Not only is the sequence—an intricate long take beginning outside the house and leading up to a series of taut, white-knuckle action scenes—visually gorgeous, it’s also one of the first set pieces in modern film to capture and successfully heighten the internet-specific feeling of pursuit and harassment by a faceless, nameless mob. The mounting terror, the sense of violation, the awful helplessness. It’s a nastily familiar jolt for anyone who’s ever been mobbed on Twitter or had the wrong selfie fall into the claws of some 4chan thread or clan of sneering irony guys. What was safe a moment ago is suddenly a kicked anthill, seething with the kind of vitriol only a combination of anonymity and the thrill of hurting women in a group can foster. Assassination Nation paints a vivid portrait of our world that’s both exhilarating in its boundless intimacy and horrifying in its permissiveness toward human cruelty, and it does it in a way no movie has before.
Access and Ownership
If the film is heavy-handed in exploring the pathological hatred young women inspire in the world around them, its thoughtful empathy for those women makes up for it. Bex and Lily exchanging “I love you”’s under the sun-soaked sheets as the film’s central crisis—a massive data leak for which Lily finds herself blamed—begins to unfold is a considerable step for the seriousness with which we think about the emotional lives of teenage girls. The madcap satire of Heathers, the hilarious melodrama of Mean Girls—as clearly as they’re sources of inspiration for Assassination Nation, it has a feel for its protagonists’ humanity that comedy can’t readily grasp.
The sense of intimacy the film creates between the girls is one reason it fares as well as it does in threading the needle between exploitation and social commentary. By establishing the girls’ lives— wild and intertwined and a little surreal—the film makes the violations that follow harrowing rather than lurid. The co-opting of the easy but fierce affection and physical license the girls have with each other by men outside the circle of their trust is sickening, and that it begins in earnest once their digital lives are aired to the public is hardly an accident.
The endless selfie reels of naked bodies and their accompanying scandals that flood out during the data leak blur the line between reality and the digital world Assassination Nation so deftly interweaves into its narrative. “Who sees a photo of a naked girl and their first thought is, “yo, I gotta kill this bitch’?” Lily wonders as two men cruise beside her in their car, shouting insults, trying to get a good angle for the best footage of her ass. A lot of people, it turns out. The film’s second and third acts are propelled by men who can’t distinguish between seeing a woman or girl’s naked body and owning that body for themselves.
The disinterested way in which Lily’s boyfriend Mark tells her “You could be a porn star, you know?” while making a recording of himself pushing his fingers into her mouth is virtually identical to the callousness he displays when he and his friend pin and strip her to determine whether or not a set of nude selfies feature her. Earlier, he tells her during a fight that she looks ridiculous and desperate in her cutoff shorts. To Mark, Lily’s sexuality exists only relative to him and his feelings. When she’s letting him fuck her, she’s hot. When she’s bothering him, she’s a whore. When she humiliates him, she’s meat.
The entire film is steeped not just in the now ubiquitous lingo and imagery of the internet, but in the emotional immersion in it brings on. When Lily’s phone vomits out a ceaseless torrent of alerts after she’s revealed as the teenage sexting partner of married 40-something father Nick Mathers (Joel McHale), you can feel the impotent dread bubbling in the air. The process of morbid curiosity, self-righteous moralizing, and plain kick-’em-while-they’re-down opportunistic cruelty that will pull her life apart has already begun. It’s like one of her body’s senses has suddenly rebelled, something so ingrained and instinctual a part of her life that its contamination is physically and emotionally unbearable.
There’s no escape. Log off? Sure, fine. Delete your accounts? Go ahead. The internet has a long memory, and once you get got, you tend to stay got. Imagine trying to keep your social life functional without the connections you’ve built or maintained over social media. The film’s deft interweaving of livestreams, cell phone videos, and texts into its structure makes a strong case for the impossibility of really disconnecting. It’s a sensitive, thoughtful portrait of the ways we connect to one another, and especially of the intense bonds that come from constant communication.
Despite its welter of blood and bullets, Assassination Nation has no pat judgements for the internet age. There’s no “well if only we’d text less!” moralizing. In probing at the heightened emotions of life online, it suggests something that media about the internet always seems to miss—that the lives we make online are extensions of the ones we lead outside it, irrevocably changed by a new medium of human interaction, but nonetheless inseparable from our wider experience as social animals. It’s the first great movie about how young women bond in 21st century America, and what their growing interconnectedness means for the future of our species.