Assassination Nation Review: The Purge Wished It Was This Badass
R: Disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language, and for drug and alcohol use - all involving teens
Neon, AGBO, Bron Studios, Foxtail Entertainment, Phantom Four, Creative Wealth Media
Dir and Written by: Sam Levinson
Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Bella Thorne, Bill Skarsgård, Cody Christian, Joel McHale, Maude Apatow, Colman Domingo, Anika Noni Rose
I saw “Assassination Nation” back in January and it blew my mind. It was one of the first films I watched this year and have been anticipating its official release ever since. I’m not surprised to find that, with my second viewing, it still holds up magnificently. I wanted to review it upon my original first viewing but I never had the time to do so.
High school senior Lily and her group of friends live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies and chats just like the rest of the world. So, when an anonymous hacker starts posting details from the private lives of everyone in their small town, the result is absolute madness leaving Lily and her friends questioning whether they'll live through the night.
You know how the Purge movies try so hard to be subtle with their political statements but they just end up being these middle-of-the-road action-thrillers? Well, this is the movie that all four “The Purge” movies wish they were. What “The Purge” movies lack is build up and character. Outside of Frank Grillo, none of the films had well-written dimensional characters you could get behind. Here, there is a natural progression to the story before it goes full-on chaotic. The film doesn't start off too violent. “Assassination Nation” nicely takes its time setting up the story, the tone, and the social message before it delves into madness. It’s done in the same spirit as an episode of “Black Mirror”. The thriller aspects are more effective here than they are in any Purge movie. There are incredibly intense scenes that will have your heart beating wildly as you grip the edge of your seat. This film is a giant, well-deserved “Fuck You” to America.
Shit, even from a violent standpoint, the film makes all four Purge movies look like amateur hour. The film is so triggering that it opens by expressing the reasons why this bears an R rating. I’m not fond of violence being exploitative unless the main characters are fully justified for their actions. These girls have every right to kill off every single person that does them wrong. While the violence gets to a Tarantino level, it breathes the same glorious aura as “Kill Bill”.
The film centers on Lily, played by a powerful Odessa Young. For this being her first leading role in a feature, she completely slays it. Her performance is passionate, chilling, and captivating. As a character, Lily is problematic and can, at times, be unlikable, but you sympathize with her and understand her terrible actions. You root for her because the people around her are far worse than her. Then, when it comes to characters with developments, the one who you emotionally reside with is one of Lily’s four friends, Bex (played by trans actress Hari Nef). She is one of the many subplots of the story, but she’s the emotional centerpiece that is needed in the midst of the aggressive spirit of the film. Her subplot is extremely well-written and Nef’s performance left me on the verge of tears. I found myself tearing up when I watched this in January and now I’m crying again in September.
What I primarily love about the film is it’s stylistic art direction. The movie is so incredibly visual with its presentation that some sequences are divided to have the same aspect ratio as a Snapchat/Instagram story. This style choice supports the story which develops from people using social media. Every scene has its own beautiful aesthetic that you must admire. Then, when the film gets violent... oh god.
If you are a cinephile, you’ll be fully captivated by the scenery. Even if you don’t side with the narrative, you have to admit that it looks amazing. From a cinematography standpoint this is one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Leave it to Neon to cast another lovely comedian and turn them to frightening monsters. Last year, their first feature “Colossal” had Jason Sudeikis go from a friendly dude to showing off his most villainous side in ways we’ve never seen before. This year we have Joel McHale. I’m not going to express how scary he becomes in this movie, but let’s just say that I will never watch “Community” the same way ever again.
I can’t lie, at times it did feel more like a male fantasy than a female-empowering movie. Since this is directed and written by Sam Levinson (who is a male) the script gets a bit uncomfortable, not because of the content, but because of the dialogue. This movie says the word “bitch” nearly the same amount of times Tarantino drops the N word in “Django Unchained”.
Another thing that’s not so subtle is the location. The film takes place in a town called Salem. Get it? Because of the Salem witch trials and the characters in this movie pitting themselves against women. This town is similar to the one that “Paranorman” takes place in where the citizens are hypocritical idiots. It’s also a solid representation kind of America itself. Think of it as a contemporary take on the Salem witch trials where everything is stringed from the Internet.
While Odessa Young and Hari Nef take the front seat, Suki Waterhouse and Abra take the backseat. We have four leads: Lily, Bex, Sarah (Waterhouse), and Em (Abra), and we only focus on two. You don’t get the sense of who Sarah and Em are and when frightening things happen to them, you want to feel for them. Speaking of which, Bill Skarsgard is in this and he plays Lily’s terrible boyfriend. Instead of getting what he deserves, he kind of just... disappears by the third act. It’s as if in the midst of filming, he had scheduling conflicts with that clown and said: “Sorry I couldn’t stick around, but have fun!”
Is casting Bill Skarsgard as a villain going to be a yearly thing? Last year we all witnessed him as Pennywise in “IT”. This year he’s a douchebag in “Assassination Nation”. Next year we get “IT Chapter Two”. He goes from devouring kids to being a high school boy assaulting his girlfriend. Granted, he’s scarier here than he was as a clown in “IT”.
Halloween is a month away, yet the most violent movies to come out this year came out in September? I thought “Hotel Transylvania” and “IT” releasing in September was baffling, but this and “Mandy” being released in the same month while having more of a Halloween atmosphere is insane.
“Assassination Nation” has its flaws, but it’s outstanding cinematography, great performances from Nef & Young, ambitious story, and the sharp-aimed execution of its relevant message makes this one of the best action-thrillers this year has to offer.
Rating: 3.5/5 | 76%
Last Statement: Light ‘em up.