'Assassination Nation' Review: A Fascinating Tale Of Online Justice Falters In Its Second Half [TIFF]

It hardly counts as a spoiler, but the ending credits of Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation feature a black marching band and drum major performing to Miley Cyrus' "We Can't Stop." While ending on such a banger makes sense for a movie that professes allegiance to little else besides the right to kick ass, there are more layers to this moment than pure self-gratification. Cyrus' song (and its scandalous video) was more than just a catchy tune. In the early days of the mainstream debate over cultural appropriation, "We Can't Stop" was a cultural battleground.

Cyrus' practice of poaching black culture for her own gain and then relegating black people to sideshow status in the performance of their own techniques generated enough thinkpieces to fill a library. Her infamous performance twerking at the 2013 VMAs while putting the sexuality of black women on display like a kind of exotic exhibition prompted Wesley Morris to call the spectacle the modern equivalent of slaves being forced to dance before their master. There are two possible explanations for Levinson and the filmmaking team summoning this cultural legacy in the bizarre bookend, neither of which reflect favorably on them. The first is ignorance, which is hard to fathom for a film that is so otherwise astutely aware on the repository of cultural images for young women. The other is a deliberate provocation, flipping the finger to viewers looking to view Assassination Nation through any kind of political prism.

Levinson's willingness to ruffle the feathers of his audience is admirable, in large part because moviegoers looking for films grappling with relevant social issues are largely coddled and reassured of their own beliefs. Assassination Nation, a wildly irreverent reimagining of the Salem Witch Trials for the era of Twitter pitchforks, thumbs its nose at blatant virtue signaling. But this gesture is largely an empty one because Levinson mistakes taunts for thematic content. The longer the film goes on, particularly in a second half that flies wildly off the rails, the more apparent it becomes that the badass retribution-seeking emperors have no clothes.

From the film's winking introduction offering a literal trigger warning as a montage surveys the hot-button topics it will broach, Levinson makes it clear he has little interest in indulging the audience's pieties. Yet even while boldly declaring nothing will be out of bounds in his quest to perturb the pearl-clutchers, he finds common cause with many of the people he'd be offending by "owning the libs," as Internet parlance has it. At least when conservatives pursue such aims, there exists the thinnest veneer of policy and worldview differences. Levinson does it because he seems to find it fun, which might be a more contemptible motivation.

It's a shame that the revelation of this bad faith spoils some of the considerable accomplishments of Assassination Nation, which genuinely offers many worthy thoughts about sexuality, communication and justice by online mob. In many ways, the film is deeply progressive. Transgender actress Hari Nef's Bex, for example, has a romantic arc that feels trailblazing for a film of this scale. Her surreptitious hook-ups with a jock both acknowledge the unique challenges trans women face in this arena while also connecting her hot-and-cold relationship to a more timeless experience of high school girls.

Bex is by far the most interesting character in a film full of familiar figures pumped up on steroids. Nothing else distinguishes the rest of her posse, a group of girls who make for perceptive observers and navigators of a treacherous social terrain – just not particularly compelling or dimensional people. What Levinson might lack in character development, however, he compensates for with his shrewd understanding of how people live their lives online. His penchant for the extreme serves him well when portraying the lion's den that is the digital realm.

Few films capture the emotional stakes of being online better than Assassination Nation. Be it in the sound of a bomb exploding when a character smashes the "Enter" key on their computer or the tyranny of the push notification ruining the ability to focus on anything, Levinson connects the quotidian online actions to the meaningful feelings behind them. He also finds a satisfying visual representation of the digital world, such as with trisected frames that reflect how many teens experience reality – through the vertical aspect ratio of a phone screen. His approach to depicting text messages by overlaying the text dead center in the frame also begs noticing; Levinson emphasizes the primacy of digital communication in any moment, automatically superseding what's actually in physical reality.

When Assassination Nation begins teasing out its premise, an ultra-contemporary update of ye old Puritanical values that scapegoated sexually forward women for a breach in social trust, all signs point to Levinson converting his earlier insights into thrilling commentary. Or, at the very least, putting a singular spin on the fabled tale. But with the help of a title card that says "one week later" when things hit the fan, Assassination Nation truly becomes a different movie. Rather than doing any of the intellectual labor necessary to resolve the issues raised, Levinson punts and lets the concept dissolve into The Purge-like anarchy.

Not every feminist-adjacent romp needs to abide by the guiding principles of the Women's March or offer a clear ideological manifesto. Assassination Nation offers nothing but trolling as a replacement, though, and thus fails to consummate the promise of deliberations begun in its first half. Levinson is smart enough to know better while also apparently being brazen enough not to really care.

/Film rating: 5.5 out of 10