When people talk about modern coming of age films, specifically centering around young women, Assassination Nation is rarely mentioned. Released in September of 2018, this film quickly entered and exited theaters with little fanfare. Written and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson, the film is filled with colorful lights, glittery makeup, and a ton of blood. In a time where older generations are constantly turning a patronizing eye towards teenagers, Assassination Nation delivers an honest and unforgiving portrayal of the persecution girls have to face in a society run by social media.
The film begins with the protagonist, Lily (Odessa Young), narrating the story of how her town, Salem (a not so subtle reference to the Salem witch trials), lost their minds and wanted to kill four teenage girls. This is followed by trigger warnings, which at first seem condescending, but soon turn comedic as they mention “toxic masculinity” and “fragile male egos.” Apart from the comedic aspect of this sequence, audiences should be warned — this film is aggressive and doesn’t hold back.
Lily’s life greatly centers around her relationships with her three best friends: Em (Abra), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Bex (Hari Nef). They go to parties, have hook ups, and experience toxic relationships; but, as their lives further unfurl, it is apparent that there are secrets under the surface. For example, Lily, despite dating her asshole boyfriend Mark (Bill Skarsgård), is secretly texting someone named “Daddy.”
While the girls navigate the complexities of high school, people begin to get hacked. Ultimately, half of Salem falls victim to the leaking of thousands of secrets, nude photos, and hot gossip that turns the entire town against each other. As Salem copes with these hacks through violence, they eventually suspect that Lily is the culprit. With cops, teens, and parents alike inciting a witch hunt for the four friends, the girls, as well as the audience, don’t know if they are going to survive the night.
Before any of the witch-hunting even begins, the film explores the ways that girls have to navigate social media and relationships in a society that is so often degrading to them. Lily is a sexual person who wears revealing clothing and expresses herself. She is also intelligent and challenges society’s expectations regarding sexuality. In one scene where she is called to the principal’s office for drawing nude selfies from Instagram in her art class, she explains that all that’s seen is the nudity. What she sees are the countless selfies the girl took before the one she posted — the different ways she contorted her body and looked at herself until she thought she looked perfect, and the fact that all it takes is “one asshole in the comments” to wipe all that confidence away. She claims this to be the reality of life, and has no problem depicting it.
This conversation, as well as a later one Lily has about nude photos of children not being inherently sexual, leans into the ideas Assassination Nation proposes about how society sees women and treats them. In one of the opening scenes, Mark is taking a video of himself putting his fingers down Lily’s throat, and says she looks so hot because she looks like a porn star. In another scene at a party, Sarah is talking to guys about porn — the guys say it taught them how to have sex, but she says it’s why every guy wants to choke her on their first Tinder date.
Women are sexualized from such a young age, yet when they express their sexuality as they get older, they are called sluts and whores. This isn’t news to anyone, there is an undoubtable double standard when it comes to women and their sexuality. However, this film contextualizes those ideas in the age of social media. Porn is more accessible than ever, which affects how men view women. People post pictures online after they’ve been filtered through Photoshop and Facetune, and as a result, girls are expected to look perfect, even at a young age. With the privacy of texting, girls can also fall into predatory relationships without anyone knowing, like when it is revealed that the mystery person Lily has been texting was Nick Mathers (Joel McHale), the father of the girl she used to babysit.
Nick is one of the people who gets hacked, and all the pictures and texts Lily sent him are now open to the public. After Mark finds out, he and his friends berate her, calling her a slut and holding her down to take a picture of her birthmark, which proves she is the one in the photos. When Lily goes home, her parents kick her out for her actions, but no one even thinks to persecute Nick Mathers for being the one preying upon an underage girl.
In a disturbing scene, Lily walks barefoot to her friends’ house after being kicked out, and a man in a truck tails her, yelling insults at her. As the scene escalates, he gets out of the car and chases her. The audience can only expect the worst to happen, but instead, Lily knocks the guy in the face with a shovel and blood splatters on the camera. She narrates, “Who sees a naked photo of a girl and their first thought is ‘Yo I gotta kill this bitch?’ Turns out, way more people than you would think.”
*SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE FILM*
The film launches into its climax directly after this scene, when Lily goes to Em and Sarah’s house. Bex is there too, and they all dress in shiny red raincoats that mirror the outfits of the characters in the Japanese rape-revenge film they’re watching. They discover that there is a video accusing Lily of being the cause of the hacks, and they all begin to worry for their safety. Em goes to check if the alarm is set, which starts a one-take sequence that tracks the exterior of the house, where the audience can only see what is happening through the windows. In what should be widely recognized as an iconic scene, we see masked men silently break in and take Em and Sarah hostage. The take ends when one is about to shoot Lily, but then gets shot by Em and Sarah’s mom, leaving Em and Sarah in possession of the mob and thrown into a cop car as Bex and Lily run to escape.
Lily runs to Nick’s house where he takes her upstairs to “keep her safe.” He puts her into his daughter’s room and grabs a towel to wipe the blood off of her. It is clear he is trying to seduce her, and he eventually tries to rape her, but Lily escapes and ends up killing him. Meanwhile, Bex has been taken by a group of transphobes from her school. They make the boy she hooked up with at a party tie her up to hang her. With all the girls separated and in the hands of dangerous men, the film seems like it is going to take a punishing turn for the worst. Luckily, Lily arms herself with weapons from Nick’s house, breaks Em and Sarah out of the cop car, and they all go to save Bex in an incredibly satisfying shootout.
The end of the film is narrated by a speech Lily gives in order to rally the people of Salem to come help her and her friends fight the mob. She is angry — calling out her attackers for coming after her, and this speech encapsulates the film’s persistent ideas about society’s treatment of women.
“Smile, open up, cross your legs, spread your pussy, speak softer, scream louder, be quiet, be confident, be interesting, don’t be so difficult, be strong, don’t fight back, be an angel, be a whore, be a princess, be anything you want to be, even the president of the United States of America. Just kidding. Fuck you.”
Some might consider this a cheesy ending, as girls take to the streets to fight with Lily and her friends. However, this ending is cathartic and relieving for female audiences. The graphic violence and sexual exploitation of women that takes place throughout the entire film make the audience feel like anything could happen to the characters at any time. When the girls are all separated and in danger, it feels like something really horrible is about to happen to all of them and they might not actually survive — but they do. They cut down the men that wronged them and give an empowering inspirational speech about how fed up they are.
*END SPOILER SECTION*
Assassination Nation explores many topics relating to American culture, but its most impactful aspect is highlighting the experience of women and girls today. Social media can be a hellscape for young girls because of the high standards it sets, as well as its accessibility to hateful comments and predatory relationships. Their wellbeing is often left behind in place of judgment and finger-pointing. The end of the film blatantly rejects these ideas — the reactions of the town are to be punished, and it’s the girls who are doing the punishing.