For the movie to avoid the dreaded NC-17 rating, the powers that be at the MPAA ordered this scene early on in the film, in which Odessa Young’s Lily simply explains to her high school principal why she submitted a nude drawing as part of a class assignment and why it isn’t nearly as extreme or inherently pornographic as he believes, be removed from the final cut. At this point, despite an admission from distributor Neon’s chief marketing officer Christian Parkes that they were never going to “dress it up into something it isn’t,” it truly seems as though the various manifestations of the patriarchy are enacting whatever powers they have to blunt any kind of exposure to the film and its intentionally provocative tone – just based on box office figures, for now, they’re winning, too. For the record, however, the full clip presented in this article was included in my basic theatrical screening, so who knows what the full details are, but for quite a few reasons thank goodness it remained.
There’s plenty to unpack from this scene about the male gaze, the hypocrisies that follow from such an institutionally-ingrained perspective, beauty standards set for women and the pressures from various sources, in this context social media, to live up to them, all of which become recurring talking points, but there’s another thought-provoking, if comparatively covert thematic connection with other scenes during the film’s relatively normal first hour regarding the disruptive power of hot takes and divisions in perspective. For a rightfully, righteously pissed-off exploitation-adjacent film like Assassination Nation, you wouldn’t expect it to be the sort to trade much in nuance, but plentiful sequences before and after this one effectively demonstrate how and why voids in nuance and immediate emotional responses fueled by unsubstantiated, regurgitated rhetoric dominate popular discourse for inevitable ill, as well as why social media, while not inherently the problem, only exacerbates this issue with users who exploit the platform to justify their rhetoric rather than engage and maybe empathize with viewpoints of life bred by varying circumstances.
Another split-screen sequence during the film’s opening stages additionally underlines the former half of this point in intriguing fashion, later becoming its own visual motif expressed through other creative means. Ultimately, the film does correctly depict how this problem, in addition to social media’s blurring for some the distinction of what is and isn’t private, disproportionately affects women, LGBTQ individuals and racial and ethnic minorities, providing further testament to its frankly unanticipated – and thus all the more welcome – striving for commentary as layered as it is multi-faceted. But perhaps most enriching of all is how the film organically allows itself to have its cake and eat it, too, seamlessly blending in-your-face ideology with in-your-face, genre-loving action for a viewing experience as cathartically enjoyable as it is confrontational. You might have already felt alienated from this picture if you are or align yourself with Trump supporters, the alt-right, incels, bro culture, etc., but if you’re also squeamish, prepare to be doubly triggered.
Appropriately, Assassination Nation doesn’t hold back on bloodthirsty violence to match its powder-keg of a feminist rallying cry. Blood pours like a fountain from slit throats, bursts from the impact of gunshots and practically coats the mise-en-scène red throughout the chaotic final act without need for lighting gels of various hues, but interestingly enough, it doesn’t much let us revel in these moments like your next grindhouse double feature. It’s plenty mean and nasty, yet each moment of gruesome violence is accomplished almost as a requisite box Levinson and Co. have to reluctantly, but also willfully check to fulfill archetypal exploitation standards; employed only when necessary to the plot rather than because convention grants them license to get away with visceral shock. Later on, it’s often the concept of vengeance as a last resort measure that lends the therapeutic qualities to the bloodletting rather than the act of violence itself, intensifying how disturbing most of it is while remaining in line with an implicitly critiqued connection between toxic masculinity and violence as the next evolutionary step from internet comments and hardcore red-state, red-pill politics.
Of course, the movie is an absurdly hyperreal and blistering satire more prepared to explicitly brandish purposeful thematic similarities between it and the Salem Witch Trials, though fashioned through The Purge-like histrionics in the #MeToo social media age, as part of its loud-and-proud intellectualism than establish any grounding in naturalism – the occasional meta joke about filmmaking and common mythmaking through cinema additionally influences this dynamic – but that hardly stunts the strength of its rage or the fact that it branches rather naturally from real-world issues. Hell, Levinson may be a cisgender man, but damned if the sheer ire he presents doesn’t feel at least somewhat authentic. In fact, the only aspect throughout the film that marginally affects proceedings is an intermittently laborious pace contradicting the energy with which it makes its social consciousness overt, but upon reflection not only provides its own genre-conscious edge to the madness, but also ensures we’re as completely immersed in this worldview and its logic as possible.
Though one could perhaps make the case that its transition from politically irate melodrama to equally potent exploitation proves sudden and uneven, making way for trope-ridden storytelling as well as a baffling abandonment of intellect-driven insanity, there’s enough of a palpable dramatic ascent in the build-up to justify the moment it pushes us off the proverbial cliff. And while most of the characters aside from Young’s Lily are indeed thin, they are decidedly so, as Levinson lets his actors use their characters and dialogue as vessels for barrages of personality stemmed from a myriad of areas of fantasy, reality and nightmare – an appropriate route to take in a project dead-set not only manifesting relentless extremities, but also on using circumstance to reveal the depths of its understanding rather than a tag-team of circumstance and characters. Though really, it’s hard believing anyone will forget the strong performances put in by Young, Hari Nef, Abra and Suki Waterhouse, regardless.
It’s hard to say anyone, at least the few that see the film during and after it’s inevitably short theatrical run, will forget anything about Assassination Nation, to be fair, and that includes all of the moments Levinson unnecessarily uses the material to show off his auteurish technical sensibilities (the long-take home invasion sequence is pretty damn special, though). Perhaps the movie ends on a terrifyingly nihilistic note and throughout doesn’t grant optimism much breathing room, but for a film whose sole intention was to depict the current era’s virtuous indignation to the nth degree in whatever forms the MPAA would graciously allow, there wasn’t really much point for it to be there – the slogan is “You Asked For It, America,” darkly clever in many respects, for a damn good reason. Likewise, anger is “of the moment” for a damn good reason, too; all this movie does is give the yells expelled with said anger a blood-covered megaphone.