'assassination nation' is the first true horror film of the twitter age
The internet has not only emboldened the voiceless — women, queer youth, and people of color — but also the vitriolic conservatives reflecting the very worst elements of the patriarchy.
Image courtesy of Neon
Early in Assassination Nation, Hari Nef stops mid-stride while entering Salem High, the most aesthetically-pleasing public school in northeastern Massachusetts. A smile appearing on her face, she declares that she “loves this song.” Her friends, played by Odessa Young, Abra, and Suki Waterhouse, are confused, as they can’t hear a thing. But as soon as Nef clicks her fingers they are all suddenly backed up by their own personal Tommy Genesis concert, which soundtracks a strut across the school grounds that Courtney Shayne would be proud of.
Following on from scenes of intoxicated debauchery at a house party, all shiny teeth and blotchy adolescent skin straight out of Kids, Assassination Nation looks and feels like an homage to the cult teen cinema of 20 years ago. Only with Lush and Letters to Cleo swapped out for Soundcloud rap, Instagram fave Bella Thorne as the “doomed special guest star,” and way more iPhones.
But it’s also a bluff. As the film’s quartet of heroines find themselves the central figures in a modern-day witch hunt that emerges from the depths of the deep web and deploys proxy servers, Russian hackers, sex-shaming, and firearms on an unsuspecting suburbia, Assassination Nation coalesces into the most 2018 film imaginable. In many respects it’s the first true horror movie of the Twitter age – urgent in its storytelling, terrifying in its implications, and burning with feminist rage. And it’s the rare internet thriller to not feel already archaic on arrival.
Hollywood has always struggled to accurately portray the digital age. Thrillers of the 90s and early 2000s like Hackers, The Net, and Swordfish depicted the novelty of email, data hacking and floppy disks through head-smacking techno montages and the furious tapping of keyboards. Otherwise the films were structurally familiar — traditional mysteries and adventure movies dressed up in Windows 95 clothing, often kitsch and noisy and filled with unnecessary CGI, and many of them curdling faster than milk.
It’s not much different today. Unfriended: Dark Web, a sequel to that other Skype-screen horror movie from 2014, and the recent John Cho vehicle Searching, a thriller told entirely through Facetime, surveillance footage and YouTube clips, both use modern tech to dress up familiar genre tropes involving kidnapping, red herrings, and stalk-and-slash murders. And while both have their pleasures, it’s likely that their on-screen push notifications and the 2018 browsers depicted throughout will age just as badly as Sandra Bullock using dial-up to order a pizza back in 1995.
But Assassination Nation feels different. It’s an overtly Gen Z horror story, full of hashtags and leaked selfies, but one that isn’t distracted by the technology involved. Instead it focuses on its real-world consequences, the shaming and the ruined reputations, and how the internet has not only emboldened the individuals often left voiceless before its inception — its women, its queer youth, and its people of color — but also the vitriolic conservatives reflecting the very worst elements of the patriarchy.
The makeup of the film’s central quartet are a living embodiment of the “This Is the Future That Liberals Want” meme: four unapologetic, politically-astute, self-aware, and sexually uninhibited teenage girls, one of them black and one of them trans. Raised on hip hop, feminist porn, and the better corners of YouTube, they have a level of confidence and smarts that far surpasses the largely dumb-as-a-brick regression of the male student body, or the adults that birthed them.
But, in a testament to the twilight zone we’ve collectively entered since 2016, it’s something they end up punished for. A data hack orchestrated by an unknown source results in half the town having their secrets exposed for all to see, leading to a rush of wildly irrational conclusions, the girls’ digital lives scoured for proof of their apparent misdeeds, and historic Salem Witch Trials reimagined for 2018 as a fascist killing spree by director Sam Levinson.
Assassination Nation doesn’t condemn the social media age. In fact, it joins Eighth Grade and Skate Kitchen in forming a trilogy of adolescent cinema this year that happily leans into the positives of Instagram and fast digital connection. These are worlds so often depicted in mass-media as no-go zones drowning in self-hatred and inauthenticity, but that in these movies prove to be salvations, particularly for young women. It’s where tight bonds are formed, creative potential is unlocked and friendships blossom, at least beneath the more problematic noise.
But Assassination Nation also posits that these safe spaces are constantly at risk of being weaponized against us, largely by an older generation terrified of the freedoms they represent — their gender and racial diversity, their inherent sex-positivity, and their shrug-worthy treatment of drugs and alcohol.
In one of the film’s most arresting scenes, Odessa Young’s character Lily is reprimanded for drawing female nudes in her art class (ironically, the scene has reportedly been cut from the film’s US theatrical release at the behest of the MPAA), but launches into a monologue about the ignorance of being outraged by the nudity while overlooking the messaging underneath. It’s a scene mirrored later on when Lily’s own nude selfies are leaked in the hack, and she is promptly thrown out of the house by her parents. But her kid brother boasting over the dinner table about watching a viral video of a family being ripped to pieces on safari? Worthy of no reaction from them at all.
The film repeatedly returns to that hypocrisy, where violence at the hands of white men is often determined to be just, while female sexuality or any depiction of the nude body are deemed chronic dangers. When Salem High’s principal falls victim to the data hack, judgy voyeurs latch onto a leaked photograph depicting his six-year-old daughter in the bathtub. Context is quickly scrubbed, leading to a mob of parents frothing at the mouth, calling him a pedophile, and demanding his resignation. Hitting movie theaters amid a hysterical right-wing climate dominated by Pizzagate, QAnon, and hijacked YouTube algorithms that accuse A-list nice guys of being child molesters, it is one of the film’s most chilling nods to reality.
But the forced resignation of the Salem High principal is also one of the rare instances in the film in which a man is taken down by internet hysteria (in one of its few missteps, the film avoids mentioning the character’s skin color, or the racial bent to one of the film’s more violent home invasions towards the end of the movie). Instead it’s young women that inevitably become the scapegoats of Salem’s apparent moral degradation – the “provocative” high school girl that led the “decent, white-bread family man” down a road of marital infidelity and graphic sexting; the trans student who kneecapped a popular jock’s fragile masculinity.
Assassination Nation ultimately descends into carnage, our heroes, all decked out in GIF-friendly red leather coats inspired by Japanese exploitation cinema, forced to adopt the violence and fire power of their detractors to save their skin. It leads to a gonzo climax, one that feels like Heathers as viewed through a funhouse mirror. But it also leaves in its wake one clear, difficult message: in the continued culture wars between two ideologies shaped by the internet of today, one embracing of equality and sexual freedom, and the other violently defending the open oppression of the past, sometimes your only chance of survival is to burn the whole thing to the ground.