“Assassination Nation” is trying to make you uncomfortable. The film even starts out with about a dozen “trigger warnings” previewing the horror that is to come in this internet age Salem witch trial about four teenage girls who become the enemies of an entire town when a hacker stars leaking individuals’ information.
Morality, sexuality, female nudity, homophobia, misogyny, pornography, pedophilia, mob mentality and gun violence are just a few of the subjects and taboos addressed in writer-director Sam Levinson’s purposefully insane film. According to Levinson, it is simply about “all the anxieties and pressures and fears of growing up in the digital age.”Now in theaters, it’s the kind of film that could become an instant cult hit, or the subject of outrage, but it’s one audiences will want to discuss after. It’s as provocative as it is divisive, but those who are on board are really and fully on board. Levinson said its unabashed outlandishness helped sell it to financers, even with its disquieting images and little-known cast.
“It’s a terrifying script. Truly terrifying,” said Odessa Young, the 20-year-old Australian actress who plays the lead character Lily. “You’re meant to look at this as a mirror and examine yourself and examine the world that you live in.”
Suki Waterhouse, 26, who plays one of the girls, Sarah, said some of her agents even cautioned her against doing the film. That made her want to do it even more.
“I don’t expect everyone to like this movie,” Waterhouse said. “I think some people are going to think it’s exploitative or disturbing. But I love the juxtapositions of what people feel about it.”
With a healthy buzz after its midnight premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it was acquired for $10 million by Neon, which released “I, Tonya,” and AGBO, a new production company led by “Infinity War” directors Joe and Anthony Russo.
But the film has not been without its own controversies. Hari Nef, a 25-year-old American actress who plays the transgender character Bex, said that she thinks people are carrying prejudice toward the film because of the director.
If there is a “type” of person who would conjure up a film like “Assassination Nation,” Levinson, who’s the son of “Diner” writer-director Barry Levinson, and also white, straight and male, probably wouldn’t be anyone’s first guess.
“I think that some people walk into it wanting to find all of the reasons why this person shouldn’t have made it,” said Nef. “I do think that Sam is an exception. I’m fascinated by the white, straight, male critics who are like, ‘This is exploitative and within the male gaze.’ … But if you talk to [the cast], we’ll tell a different story.”
Levinson wants the film to start a dialogue, although he can’t help but laugh that some think it’s a revenge film. He doesn’t see it that way at all.
“I think ultimately it’s a story about surviving the digital age, surviving the country at this moment. It’s about listening to one another, it’s about having empathy with those with whom you may disagree. It’s about figuring out a better, healthier way to co-exist. I don’t think we’re as inflexible and strident as our internet personas make us out to be,” he said.
Young noticed that the film has inspired different reactions from audiences depending on age. Older generations, she said, think of it as a fantasy. To the younger ones however, it’s reality.
“Look, go in with an open mind,” Young advised. “You’re going to be shocked. Prepare to be shocked.”