Assassination Nation: turbo-charged pseudo-intellectualism

Assassination Nation is like Spring Breakers for people who didn’t finish their GCSE’s. Where that film used devious marketing and technical trickery to mask an intelligent takedown of American consumer culture; this one layers fake-deep ‘social observation’ on top of a neon Tumblr-core aesthetic to appeal intellectually to…. well… the lowest common denominator of Tumblr users. But, aside from the bottomless pit in lieu of brainpower, Assassination Nation is surprisingly well-made, and sporadically exhilarating.

Sam Levinson’s Purge­-esque slice of neon violence opens with a fast and furious barrage of a trigger warning: gore, guns, homophobia, torture, fragile male egos, the list goes on. It’s interesting and certainly amusing, but self-obsessed and righteous in a way that acts as foreshadowing for the rest of the piece. After the posturing, we follow a group of young women at Salem High (no prizes for guessing the reference) who spend their days trying to deal with abusive, misogynistic boyfriends, sexting creepy older men who ask to be called ‘Daddy’, and shit-talking the rest of the school. These scenes are shot with such energetic panache and stylistic verve that its impossible not to enjoy them, even if the main protagonists are shockingly annoying – arrogant, obnoxious, and actually pretty boring.

The film then takes a while – perhaps too long – to make its intentions clear. After the mayor of Salem is hacked, with disastrous consequences, the town experiences an epidemic of privacy-destruction which leads to the erosion of society (and, eventually, splashy violence.). Somewhat schizophrenically, the tone snap-changes from punchy social commentary to gory, neon exploitation in an unbelievable instant – a ‘three weeks later’ intertitle trying to distract from the fact that all-out horror movie anarchy is in no way a logical conclusion to this story. Nevertheless, once Assassination Nation settles into trashy, bloody revenge mode, it becomes deliriously entertaining.

Thick mist coats suburban streets bathed in lurid neon, where rival factions dressed in garish costume confront each other in gory battles. A wonderful one-take home invasion, filmed from the outside of a house, is an absolute masterstroke of filmography – each window opening up onto an intricate piece of bright, aesthetic production design. And, when the narrative builds to its furious, violent conclusion, the results are thrilling to behold.

As an audio-visual experience, then, Assassination Nation compensates for its own clumsy commentary. Throughout, the production design is impeccable – almost every shot in this movie could be used as an instagrammable still – and the lighting is, well, very Spring Breakers, making even dull school classrooms feel like vibrant nightclubs. Costume design is idiosyncratic, bright and consistently interesting – especially in the final stretches of the film, where our heroes don iconic red raincoats. The soundtrack is absolutely electric too – an exhilarating mash-up of art-pop, avant-garde electronic, and XX-esque dream-electronic. It all adds up to an impressively surreal, otherworldly atmosphere that rocket-propels an otherwise uneven satire into cult madness.

Assassination Nation is messy, uneven, and painfully smug – yelling uninspiring, obvious, ‘woke social commentary’ to an audience of deaf ears. Yet its production design, filmography, soundtrack, and explosively splattery final act make it a worthwhile trip to the movies for genre fans. Unlike the many movies that promise a chaotic, midnight-movie finale and under-deliver on the madness, it does a great job at satisfying audiences with a cathartic, unhinged, surreal second half that’s deranged enough to make them forget about the self-satisfied smugness of the first.


Assassination Nation is in UK cinemas on November 23

James is an undergraduate law student at UCL, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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