Sam “Son of Barry” Levinson’s second feature, Assassination Nation, is a big, bold and insane satire that’s angry about most of the things going on in internet-obsessed culture. One of the many obvious reference points that Levinson is working from is National Born Killers and his flick is just as confused and ambitious as that 1990s relic. Determining if that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of taste and endurance.
Assassination Nationhas many monologues and montages making broad statements. It’s clear that Levinson is as passionate about the ideas in play as the dozens of cinematic references and show-off stylistic flourishes that clutter every moment of the picture. Whether or not the movie actually has a coherent message or lives up to the high points is a reasonable question.
After opening with a series of trigger warnings to let the audience know that this film is #edgybutgetsit, we’re introduced to an 18-year-old heroine named Lily (Odessa Young), who’s just so over it. She’s cynical and snide like characters from Heathers or Scream, but has also seen those movies and would probably roll her eyes if you brought them up. In a seemingly endless split-screen party sequence, Levinson shows off every directorial trick he can think of to out-Doom Generation The Doom Generation by reveling in teen angst and excess. Eventually, a story sort of starts to emerge. Lily and her equally self-aware/snarky girlfriends are all intelligent and above their community, but are hopelessly addicted to their phones like everyone else. While at the party, a local hacker reveals the contents of the mayor’s phone, proving that the strict Christian conservative regularly puts on lady’s lingerie with prostitutes. It ruins his life. Then the same thing happens to the school principal with the same results. Then half the town have their phones hacked and things descend into anarchy.
That all makes Assassination Nation sound like a fairly focused and deliberate satire, which the movie definitely isn’t. Little Levinson lobs grenades at seemingly every aspect of contemporary society and homages roughly every movie he’s ever seen that’s remotely similar to this one. To call it excessive would be an understatement. Not since the mushroom and cocaine-fueled Avid fart editing style of ’90s Oliver Stone has a movie tried so desperately to over-stimulate and call it art. Sounds obnoxious? It sure is. There’s at least one scene in the movie to alienate everyone who dares to suck it into their eyesockets and earholes. It’s all much too much, sometimes in a way that’s clearly pandering to an easily distracted generation of young viewers, and sometimes in a rather deliberate way that can be funny, amusing, shocking, or all damn three at once.
That’s the thing about Assassination Nation. Hit-or-miss though it may be, there are certainly hits among the misses. The movie has a few good ideas, some scrumptiously designed sequences, and even some genuine laughs and shocks. Perhaps it all comes wrapped up in a big mess, but it just might find itself courting a cult audience in time.
What Levinson has created is a movie that feels like Donnie Darko fucked Southland Tales and gave birth to Natural Born Killers 2.0… or something along those lines that’s a less obnoxious analogy. It’s the type of movie that’s easy to hate and hard to love, yet impossible to forget. Something interesting is going on in Assassination Nation, even if the filmmakers themselves don’t always quite seem to be sure what that is. Either way, if the movie sounds even remotely interesting to you, it’s worth checking out. Whether you applaud at the credits or walk out long before then in disgust, the movie will make a mark.