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D: Sam Levinson / 108m

Cast: Odessa Young, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef, Abra, Maude Apatow, Anika Noni Rose, Joel McHale, Colman Domingo, Bella Thorne, Bill Skarsgård, Cody Christian, Danny Ramirez, Kathryn Erbe, Jennifer Morrison

In modern day Salem, Massachusetts, Lily Colson (Young) is a high school senior whose main interests are art, challenging the views of the adults around her, and hanging out with her best friends, Em (Abra), Sarah (Waterhouse), and Bex (Nef). She has a boyfriend, Mark (Skarsgård), but also appears to have a relationship with someone called “Daddy”. One day, a mysterious hacker known only as Er0sta4tus begins a campaign of releasing photographs and texts that expose the secrets of a number of well-known townspeople, including the mayor and Lily’s school principal (Domingo). Damage is done in both instances, but it’s when a massive data dump exposes the secrets of half the town that things spiral out of control. Mark finds out about “Daddy”, and Lily is cruelly victimised as a result. A week later, matters worsen for Lily and her friends when a group of vigilantes assert that she is responsible for the data dump. With all four at Em’s house, they find themselves under attack, and unable to count on being rescued by the police…

A triumph of style over substance, Assassination Nation is an angry movie that raves against the intolerance it perceives to be prevalent in the US today, but in the same way that a certain elected proponent of the “fear” factor paints a self-serving, one-sided version of the truth, so too does writer/director Sam Levinson. With the movie lacking in introspection, and unable to provide the necessary causality to make its second half anywhere near convincing, it’s a frustrating experience that starts off well (an early montage of coming attractions that include violence, transphobia, fragile  male egos, and giant frogs is a particular highlight), but which soon abandons any attempts at satire, or subtlety, as it morphs from an impassioned critique of small town hypocrisy into a below par, gender-focused variation of The Purge. Levinson has some pretty big targets in his sights, but doesn’t quite know how to approach them, riffing on the perils of social media and toxic masculinity, but from a cautious distance that only feels truly immersive when he’s subjecting Lily to all sorts of physical humiliation. These moments are also gleefully exploitative, and wouldn’t feel out of place if they’d been lifted from the likes of Day of the Woman (1978).

There’s the temptation to believe that Levinson has set out to shock and upset his audience deliberately, although if that is the case, the why remains a mystery. The one truly upsetting thing about the movie is its lack of narrative clarity. It doesn’t help either that the characters remain singularly one-dimensional from start to finish, with several individuals’ motivations proving murky at best, or risible at worst. It’s fortunate then that the look of the movie is all the more arresting and confidently handled. Thanks to DoP Marcell Rév, Assassination Nation is one of the bolder and more vivid movies released this year, and the visual flair on display is often breathtaking in its audacity. Utilising split screen techniques, filters, odd camera angles, fluid camera work, and tight framing where it’s most effective, Rév makes the movie soar beyond the pedestrian nature of the narrative. It also has a terrific, and eclectic soundtrack that mixes classical, avant-garde, pop, and alternative rap to superb effect. Against this, the performances range from the committed and convincing (Nef), to the perfunctory and underwhelming (Waterhouse, Christian), and in the case of Young, hampered by poor writing and direction.

Rating: 5/10 – a vibrant, visually startling movie that’s also a mess of half-thought out ideas and narrative cul-de-sacs, Assassination Nation wants to get in its viewer’s face and scream about the unfairness of bigotry and hypocrisy, but in the end it’s too unfocused to get its message across except in the clumsiest of fashions; it also has a tough time justifying its “girls can be tough too” approach when their own revenge spree smacks so much of being an obvious male fantasy brought to life.