When a film begins with a montage of trigger warnings for nearly every offensive thing you can think of, you know it’s going to leave some kind of impression. Whether you think Assassination Nation is good or bad, memorable is definitely the word you’ll use to sum up the glitter-coated, blood-splattered black comedy.
Through colourful montages of Snapchat videos, the first quarter of the film treats us to a night of teenage debauchery. It’s an R-rated Degrassi: Next Class, if Degrassi had their own annual purge. Enter Salem, a small suburban town where everyone has something to hide. A hacker is exposing the citizens’ secrets one by one in huge data leaks, turning them all against each other in the process. In the middle of this are four high school seniors — Lily, Bex, Em and Sarah — who wind up having the blame pinned on them.
Not long after, the peaceful but boring Salem morphs into something out of a gory, bloodstained graphic novel as the town bands together to hunt down and murder the friend group. Take me seriously when I say bloodstained: the colour red is practically this film’s calling card. There’s the bloody bathroom tsunami Lily (Odessa Young) slips and slides around in during an attempt to escape one of the many people trying to kill her. There’s the firetruck — red leather coats the girls don for seemingly no other reason beyond giving fans a costume for when the film gets cemented as a cult classic. Most notably, too, are the hundreds of American flags littered throughout the background at all times to remind you of the film’s political intent. It’s not like the occasionally forced dialogue is doing that already.
Everything in Salem is cartoony and over the top, but no one’s trying to hide it. The extreme violence and bloodshed is satire at its finest. The surrealism is also seen through tiny but notable moments. “I love this song!” announces Bex (Hari Nef) at one silent moment, confusing her three friends as much as the audience. But, when finally prompted, she snaps her fingers to make music play and our heroines strut off to the beat. It’s fun, light-hearted and offers room for laughter at things that really shouldn’t be funny.
Once the mood shifts less than mid-way through, however, the film begins to escalate and never seems to stop. That’s not a bad thing — in fact, it’s a blast to watch and satisfying more often than not. However, the darkness overshadows the comedy as Assassination Nation goes on. Powerful acting from the four leads – notably Young and Abra, who makes her acting debut as Em — amp up already gut-wrenching scenes. One of these moments features a tracking shot from outside of a house that goes on for an impressive amount of time. We follow the characters from window to window, terrified over the fact that they can’t see the masked Salem citizens who are hiding outside, lying in wait for an opportunity to attack. It’s a visual lesson on privacy, but most of the movie’s key ideas refuse to be as subtle — and, as a result, aren’t done nearly as well.
The film’s well-intentioned messages feel meaningless after having them shoved down your throat so many times. The characters’ conversations often turn needlessly political and Lily has frequent monologues that sound like essays rather than the ramblings of a teenage girl. There’s nothing wrong with exploring these ideas, but when they dominate every conversation in the film, it feels like the writers are talking down to their audience. After seeing a gun-toting, bloodthirsty mob chanting “we’re good people!” in front of a big American flag, we get the point.
If you can get past the preachiness, Assassination Nation is a wild ride without a clear destination. The intensity in this film can get exhausting, but I mean that in the best way possible. While thrilling to watch, it offers no answers to the questions it poses. That might just be the point though. What to do to stop the real world from turning into surreal Salem is up to you to figure out. Until then, you might just want to clear your hard drive.