One of my biggest pet peeves is dishonesty from a director. Whatever else you think of names such as Godard, Tarantino or Korine, they’re filmmakers who have always been exactly who they are and tailored their films accordingly. I use those names because, for better or worse — no, for worse, consistently for worse — Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation tries to one-up each of them but only succeeds at making me by turns wish I was watching one of their films or swearing off watching films altogether. I picture Levinson, sprinting headlong towards all the grand philosophical lessons he’s trying to impart to us, getting a rake to the face each time and then turning around and screaming, “I meant to do that! I like rakes to the face!” No, Sam. You don’t.
It’s okay — welcome, even — to make a violent film in order to comment on violence. It’s okay to do that with any subject, really. But what doesn’t work is when your director is clearly just really into looking at teenage girls’ bodies, mostly naked, covered in blood, begging for a much older man to use them for sex. That’s not a comment; it just is what it is. Likewise, you don’t get points for casting a trans actress when you’re just going to turn around and sling trans slurs with no hint that it’s not okay to do that.
Assassination refuses to even try going any deeper than it at first states it wants to, settling instead for a “cool” (lazy) opening montage of all the most extreme footage to come, complete with a “Trigger Warning” attached to it. Good one, Sam. We get it. You’re trying to make The Rules of Attraction or something, a film that, while brilliant and subversive for its time, has not aged all that well. This film already feels horribly dated by comparison.
Or is Levinson baiting us? Trying to weed out those who can’t stomach this kind of cinematic monstrosity from the bros who think it’s just all in good fun? Fine. I’ll take the bait and offer a trigger warning of my own. This is a film that features the torture and attempted murder of a trans teenage girl, who is then allowed to offer the line “Thanks for not murdering me… I guess,” to her assailant without the film offering back any hint of irony or empathy for all that this scenario implies on the part of the filmmakers. It’s an ugly moment in a film full of them. Likewise, we get plenty of jiggling teenage bodies to ogle while at the same time getting lip service to how we shouldn’t be doing that. Or… is it okay to do that? The film can’t decide, and instead lets just about everybody off the hook all at once. See? All in good fun. No harm done.
You can have a movie where girls run around in cool skimpy outfits murdering everybody. You can even let them be sexually active and drinking and smoking and taking nude selfies the whole time. Just please have a point. Assassination revels just a little too giddily during the buildup to all its professed girl-power chaos of a finale, lingers a little too long, gets off on the very things it wants us to be disgusted by. Juiced in or not, you’d think the son of the director of Wag the Dog would’ve picked up on a little something called “satire.” Rated R for disturbing bloody violence, strong sexual material including menace, pervasive language and drug and alcohol use — all involving teens.
Now playing at Carolina Cinemark and Regal Biltmore Grande.