The Salem lynching gets a modern update served with #nofilter in Sam Levinson’s timely horror.
“This is the story of how my town lost its motherfucking mind,” we hear as the camera moves through the neighbourhood, focusing on people in bizarre masks on their faces. A handful of trigger warnings flash on the screen: bullying, abuse, racism, male gaze, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and fragile male egos all briefly appear to warn us about what’s to come. Then, a split-screen with short, neon-drenched snaps takes over, showing us tiny glimpses of lives filtered through Snapchat. “Be #blessed because the entire world is watching, and waiting until you fuck it up,” Lily tells us in the voiceover as the dynamic party scenes take us through a teenage night out. We’re in Salem, and the witch hunt is about to be rewritten for the digital era.
“Privacy is dead,” claims one of the girls as she tries to ignore the hack and convince the others that only “old people” care about it. For Lily, Bex, Sarah and Em (Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse and Abra respectively), everything is an act, as much as the teens would like to believe otherwise: the filters don’t show the tears and hang-ups of your nights out. Taking advantage of your image is the only way – one of the cheerleaders (Bella Thorne) believes that putting her “real” self on Insta gets her purchases from Amazon wishlists and a steady flow of likes from forty-year-olds on the other side of the country. But what if somebody decided to fix your handcrafted brand and spill your secrets?
When the first target, the local mayor, suffers from the data leak, the feelings of the residents are mixed. Some think he deserved it, some mock him for thoughtless behaviour. The hack immediately ends up on publicly accessible forums, with all the photos and messages from the politician’s iPhone spread all over the internet. Finally, he takes his own life – the footage of which is immediately turned into a horrific meme. When the forthcoming leaks start destroying families and sending more lives into disarray, initial shock turns into panic.
In Assassination Nation, a high-school film meets a slasher. Taking a close look at relationships between the leading four, the film uses social media and generational clashes to recreate the world of modern teenagers and exaggerate its politics to make a point. In the final act, blood splatters all over the set, but the ladies don’t resort to escaping the killers: they turn into a supercharged assassin squad instead. The film is very self-aware, too: when the girls speak about appearing in a horror film, Em pokes fun at Lily by reminding her about the archetypes that’d normally allow the faultless, pure girl to survive the massacre. There’s little space for subtlety; the film screams its message from the rooftops instead.
The film continues the trend of filmmaking that takes interest in the nuances of the Internet and understands how to depict them. Not only does it make use of a plausible story to fuel the plot, but it captures the social implications of a potential data hack in gruesome detail. When private photos and chats spill the secrets of people in the public eye, the lack of context makes people jump to conclusions. Soon, righteous judgements spread left, right and centre, while many eagerly use their platforms to express their contempt for the dirt unleashed by hackers.
But the mob mentality, initially driven by performative comments expressed in whispers between classes and in online videos, transform into an event with horrid consequences. Initially, it’s as simple as chanting “lock him up” when one of the victims tries to make a speech to clear his name. When it turns out that nobody is safe, the town sets out to find a scapegoat that can be brutally punished for revealing a simple truth: no person is virtuous enough to be held to the stringent standards imposed on everyone by the society, particularly when they’re based on an outdated, toxic worldview.
When the pool of hacked neighbours broadens, they target women in search of an easy mark. The town residents are busy looking for somebody to blame for the cyberattack, which puts the group of the girls in danger of lynching and sets a base for the plot. But there’s also a subtler aspect tackled in one of the scenes. Early on, Lily explains to the principal that nudes on her artworks are only the depiction of a naked human body – it doesn’t sexualise its subjects unless the viewer chooses to read it that way. For her, it’s a critique of the forces that make girls cover themselves up, try hundreds of angles and poses before they take the ideal picture, only to be destroyed by an unfavourable comment from one of the guys. But her head teacher doesn’t agree, explaining that there are boundaries to statements she can make as a high school girl. Later in the film, when one of the students suffers from the hack, she knows that the Internet doesn’t forget – especially when you’re a woman. Realising that she’ll always be guessing whether her dates, friends and employers sifted through her publicly available data, she decides to pursue vendetta to get a payback for her broken reputation that carries the same weight.
But the film hints also at the expectations that toxic masculinity enforces on men. The guys in high school are encouraged to be violent and solve their problems by humiliating others. Any variation from the norm will be punished with exclusion from the social group; nobody has the nerve to stand up for what’s right when it means being cast away from their clique. When Mark’s (Bill Skarsgard) ego gets wounded, he can’t hide his satisfaction in screaming at Lily about her apparent lack of self-respect. The other men in the film don’t know any better (with a small exception), following the crowd to protect their own status.
Assembling its forces to drive the female rage, Assassination Nation doubles on its social commentary the further it goes. It’s a story that plays out on the Internet and moves into the cinematic space, nailing all the points it tries to cover along the way.
Assassination Nation opens as a part of the London Film Festival. It opens in the UK on the 23rd of November 2018.