The Toronto International Film Festival is best-known these days as a Big Daddy of the awards season. Major films that premiere at TIFF – of which there are many – tend to do so with glamorous red-carpet events, stars congregating outside any one of the gorgeous theatres in the closed-to-traffic festival zone. Many are slick, prestigious studio dramas from celebrated filmmakers – think First Man, A Star Is Born, or If Beale Street Could Talk – and they’re rightly festooned with attention.
I did not attend TIFF this year for those films. I attended for Midnight Madness. Read More »
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
You’re about to see Salem as you’ve never seen it before. The town that has become synonymous with the persecution of dozens of innocent women and girls, Assassination Nation imagines if a similar witch-hunt takes place in modern day — but the girls fight back.
The edgy Sundance selected thriller turns a peaceful small town into a bloodthirsty mob when a hacker starts leaking intimate emails, texts, pictures, and search histories of its residents. When four teenage girls get the blame for it, the town turns on them. But it’s only a matter of time before they “get pissed off and fight back.”
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Prepare for something totally insane coming to theaters this fall.
The Sundance selected thriller Assassination Nation turns a small town into a bloodbath when a hacker starts leaking the most intimate e-mails, texts, pictures and internet search histories of a few key community figures before unleashing an absolute barrage of hacked goods. It turns the entire town upside down, and four teenage girls are getting blamed for all of it. But they’re not taking this shit lying down. Watch the Assassination Nation red band trailer to see how insane things get. Read More »
NEON is certainly making a name for itself as a distributor of edgy indie movies, often with a feminist bent. And the studio’s newest film, Assassination Nation, looks like it checks all those boxes.
NEON and GOZIE AGBO have released the first red band teaser trailer for the Sundance breakout film, which follows a group of four high school girls who band together after their small town of Salem, Massachusetts descends into madness and violence after an anonymous hacker targets the private lives of all the residents. We’re talking violence, strong language, adult content — so much so that the Assassination Nation trailer comes equipped with its own “trigger warning.” See the trailer below.
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Posted on Monday, January 29th, 2018 by Jacob Hall
As the first major film festival of the year, Sundance is ground zero for distributors discovering some of the gems that will populate film release schedules throughout the rest of the year. Here is our list of movies sold at Sundance 2018 so far, which should be coming to theaters, VOD, and streaming services in the near future.
In this update: The Sentence, The Tale, and Sorry to Bother You.
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