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Sam Levinson's Assassination Nation is a film that is urgent to tell you just how edgy it is. As though it wasn't enough that the first teaser trailer presented a list of Trigger Warnings for the audience, the same inventory of taboo topics actually strobes on the screen just shortly into the feature's runtime. It's an exercise in telling-not-showing that sets it up as an exploitation movie for the internet age -- and to its credit, all of the promised "offensive" material mentioned is represented. What's disappointing, however, is that all of the attempts come across as wholly manufactured and hollow; ultimately leaving it devoid of the desired cheap thrills and instead inspiring simple shrugs.
Based on an original screenplay by Levinson, Assassination Nation centers on 18-year-old Lily (Odessa Young), a youthful and fun-loving average girl living an average life palling around and partying with her three best friends, Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Bex (Hari Nef). Things start to go sideways in their little burb, though, when a local hacker exposes the secret life of the mayor and completely ruins his life. This by itself is enough to cause a firestorm of controversy, with locals either outraged or eating up all of the gossip, but things start to get even more serious when the same thing happens to the high school principal (Colman Domingo).
Those who initially thought it was funny to see people in power exposed and torn down begin to see comeuppance as the hacks become more frequent. Emails, texts, and pictures with private content start leaking from everywhere, and it doesn't take long for paranoia to transform into violence. Lily in particular finds herself in trouble when a secret of her own becomes public, but things quickly go from bad to worse when she becomes a prime suspect responsible for the digital invasions -- leading the entire neighborhood in to Purge-esque anarchy.
The movie isn't without its moments of bloodthirsty delights, as it's fun to watch a little aggressive vengeance via baseball bat and scummy douchebags getting what's coming to them, but there's a lot of dull character work and exposition-driven dialogue stuck between these sequences. And while you are certainly meant to bring some suspension of disbelief with you to screenings of Assassination Nation, there is still something that feels weirdly false about the movie's escalation. Even factoring in the worst of human impulses, there's a real rush to the epidemic of homicidal rage, with no real support offered from the script-built characterization, and it just feels phony -- and it alienates you from the material.
Where the screenplay fails Assassination Nation, though, the good news is that it has Sam Levinson's admirable and impressive style to elevate it. His collaboration with cinematographer Marcell Rév delivers some truly beautiful, awesome and challenging sequences -- with the great highlight being a long take that zooms us through and around a house during a sleepover that evolves into a deadly home invasion. It's the kind of film where you could pick a random frame and find a cool angle or impressive lighting; it's just too bad that the story being captured doesn't deliver on the same level.
In totality, Assassination Nation is a movie that sees its reach exceed its grasp -- but the reach is at least admirable. Sam Levinson has ambition in addition to room to grow as a writer/director, this being only his second time at the helm of a feature, and the work certainly isn't boring. You just also wish that the film was fully the piece of work that it very much wants to be.