Smash-cut trigger warnings, a shotgun blast, the glassy ping of an iPhone: Assassination Nation telegraphs its M.O. before the opening credits roll. Sam Levinson’s pitch-black comedy is a bloody, wildly stylized study in 21st-century satire: Heathers without the hairbows, Natural Born Killers in suburban-Millennial drag. (Spring Breakers and I Spit on Your Grave also come to mind.)
In a town called — not portentously at all — Salem, 18-year-old Lily (Odessa Young) cruises the hallways of her high school with best friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra). They’re the obvious cool girls of a thousand teen movies, but Levinson doesn’t let you forget for a minute that he knows it: “I love this song!” Bex exclaims as they roll through the quad. Which song? “This one,” she snaps her fingers, and the music cues up — conjuring the meta magic of filmmaking from thin air.
Bex, by the way, is also trans; Em is black. It’s to the director’s and the actresses’ credit that none of this feels like ticked boxes on a diversity wish list. Anyway it’s blond, pretty, cis-gendered Lily who becomes the main target when a data leak exposes the town’s cross-dressing mayor, the earnest school principal, and dozens of other private citizens to ridicule, professional disgrace, and worse.
Nation’s take on the corrosive reach of social media — with all the sex-shaming, tribalism, and amplified rage it only seems to viralize — is not exactly fresh. And for some, the movie’s blithe candy-apple feminism and cartoonish violence will no doubt come off as misguided as the targets they supposedly condemn. But there’s a kinetic energy in Levinson’s telling, and real catharsis in a riotous final sequence that feels all the more triumphant for the unlikeliness of such a bloody, happy ending. B+