Kristen Cochrane discusses violence, survival, feminism and sexual autonomy in 2018’s most #triggering film (for white dudes, anyway), Assassination Nation. (Minor spoilers ahead!)
The biggest sale at Sundance this year, feminist splatter opera Assassination Nation, will be both celebrated and reviled once it hits theatres. It’s a film that will inevitably be a classic, perhaps even with a cult following that crosses various genres and ideologies. But I feel a perverse, anticipatory thrill in what both professional and citizen critics will complain about once they watch it.
Directed by Sam Levinson, the film’s narrative drive is a community-wide hack which is wrongly attributed to high schooler Lily (Odessa Young). In some of the descriptions I’ve encountered, it has been characterized as a revenge film. But I would be wary of describing it as such, since Lily and her four best friends, Sara (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef), and Em (Abra), spend most of the film’s second and third act defending themselves against the most brutal methods of psychological and physical torture that can be inflicted. Even when the four teenagers meet their terrorizers who pursue them under the guise of vigilante justice (terrorizers who embody the current – and archaic – phenomenon of white male rage), the four friends do not return the same merciless torment that they experienced. Instead, they are charitable to their terrorizers despite the atrocities they have suffered.
I suspect that critics of Assassination Nation will feel held hostage by the film’s violence, gore, and candid depictions of female sexuality, whether they are conscious of it or not. Or they just might not understand that Assassination Nation is, in a significant way, a film essay bound in cultural critique. One critic, hilariously, does not even believe the film contains subtext, which simply does not make sense, because any text (like a film, book, or painting), has subtext. The charge of the missing subtext aside, it is almost certain that the out of touch, craft beer-wielding, straight, white men who hate “feminism” will be puzzled that this film sold for so much. Bringing up the 10 million dollar deal that Neon and AGBO spent on global distribution rights, IndieWire’s prolific critic Eric Kohn claimed that it’s not surprising that “the most money spent at America’s most prominent filmmaking showcase would be for a movie that indicts and celebrates excess in a single chaotic package.” I’m also not surprised at this tone-deaf statement that ignores the film’s nuanced use of allegory to consider the intersections of sexual autonomy, sexuality, race and gender.
Moreover, Assassination Nation is not a celebration of violence. In the interest of avoiding too many spoilers, I will not be specific with examples, but there are significant instances wherein Levinson, who also wrote the script, insists in his characterization and narrative that the young women are compassionate, rational beings – even when victimized to an extreme and horrific degree. Their “revenge,” which will inevitably be falsely interpreted as their retribution, is in fact a mode of survival.
It is interesting that principal photography on the film began last April, and that Levinson wrote this script at least several months before the Weinstein Effect (did you know this phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page?), #MeToo, and Times Up, where women on a global scale have felt empowered to speak up on past and present abuse and mistreatment from men (and in some cases, men have also come forth). In a moment of timely serendipity, Assassination Nation mirrors this reckoning; both the film and our present moment work to remind us (and enlighten others) that, as women, we face disproportionate repercussions for claiming sexual sovereignty – or even just existing. In a poignant scene that drew laughs from the audience for its nearly satirical delivery, protagonist Lily’s father flatly tells her at the dinner table that it’s his job to protect her. The booty-short wearing Lily (who recalls Heather Graham in Boogie Nights, and has a poster of Russ Meyer’s 1965 Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the tongue-in-cheek violent girl gang film, now considered a feminist classic) is, as the film demonstrates, decidedly not in need of patriarchal protection. However, she is in constant conflict with similar “protective” male impulses; both her boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård) and her secret older lover Nick (Joel McHale) are vying for the role of the authoritarian father who mandates his female object’s sexuality. Nick is even known as “daddy” in her phone.
I couldn’t wrap my head around how attuned this script was to the American (and Canadian and British) Millennial and Gen Z vernacular. The opening sequence of the film felt like it was composed by an Instafamous Millennial Gaspar Noé, with its massive, flashing, tongue-in-cheek trigger warnings which flashed so quickly that it heightened the sense of being triggered. It warned us of transphobia, violence, and sexism, among other things, but the most symbolic inclusion of trigger warnings was “fragile male egos.” In the Q&A that followed the screening, I asked Levinson how the dialogue resembled so much of what teenagers and twentysomethings are actually saying, since most screenplays that attempt to portray teenagers make them sound like they have been ghostwritten by an older relative who is figuring out “how to find a YouTube.” I ended my comments and question with “how did you get inside of my head!?” In a moment that restored my faith in male allegiance with feminism, Levinson humbly explained that it is not actually difficult to know what teenagers are trying to say to us right now. They are practically shouting it at us, he argued. While Levinson is in his early thirties, he had that physically enthusiastic yet sincerely concerned disposition that Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have, where they address universal concerns but are also patently tapped into the youth psyche. Levinson’s statement made me feel stupid because it seemed so obvious yet had never occured to me. I also felt galvanized, because all along I was being sympathetic to people who don’t understand teenagers, when most of them have a high speed internet connection with endless access to knowledge – like the progressive discourses that teenagers are fervently sharing. I realized that this was not a case of teenagers being incomprehensible (or, worse, not worth comprehending), but rather that screenwriters are often not actually trying to understand them. Levinson reminded me how crucial it is for those writing stories to do some serious listening right now.
Watching the film, I was on high alert. A white man in a heterosexual relationship writing and directing a film like this could be a recipe for disaster. Of course, we need men – and all those with identity privilege – to write and direct compassionate projects about topics related to social emancipation, and to use their privilege as a way to promote and facilitate projects by marginalized voices. But as we have seen, male “feminism” can take a sinister turn when public politics (also known as performative allyship) do not match private actions.
Typically, I would assume that men would hate this film. It’s so unladylike in every single way. It offers a glimpse into the breathless, raw, and sometimes gross world of teenage girls. It’s gory, it’s angry, it’s sexual. I can see John Waters enthusiastically characterizing it as “outrageous” when he eventually sees it, excitedly spotting Easter eggs like the Russ Meyer poster in Lily’s bedroom and clips of the 1971 Japanese exploitation girl gang film Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess. (Scenes of the women from the latter wearing red coats is crosscut with the four women in Assassination Nation in their own blood-red PVC coats – attire that makes the viewer unsure if they’re about to pee on a man or kill him – or both). However, the loud male cheering that erupted throughout the entire screening suggested that more men are on our side than I thought. I will never forget the man who, in tears, thanked the cast and crew during the Q&A for the film and talked about his difficulty as a queer immigrant in the United States. I won’t forget the water it brought to Hari Nef’s eyes as she listened intently to this audience member. The film, in itself and as an event, was a reminder that it is possible to have allegiance, unity, and intersectional feminist politics, and that our rage, sorrow, and stories of survival (not victimhood) can be holistically acknowledged, heard, and addressed.
Kristen Cochrane is a writer and graduate researcher at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. Her current research is located in queer cinema, particularly in Latin America, but she also writes on topics related to culture, film, media and their intersections with gender and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Amuse/i-D, AnOther, Teen Vogue, Somesuch, and VICE.