‘Let It Burn’: Assassination Nation and the Cinema of the End

Photo: Neon

The marketing for Assassination Nation suggests an orgy of empowering ultraviolence: “You asked for it, America,” blare the posters, above an image of four young women in shiny red coats brandishing an assortment of deadly weapons. But is it a movie about empowerment, or annihilation? Sam Levinson’s film takes place in the small suburban enclave of Salem (literary allusion alert!), which “loses its motherfucking mind” and is plunged into chaos when a mysterious hacker starts stealing people’s private information and making it public.

First, the conservative town mayor is outed as a cross-dresser who solicits male escorts, which in turn leads to his committing suicide during a news conference. Next, the high-school principal is condemned for innocent photos of his naked 6-year-old daughter, which some deem pornographic. Eventually, the hacker (named “Er0str4tus,” evoking Herostratus, the ancient Greek fame-hound who torched the Temple of Artemis for the lulz) uploads half the town’s data, and all hell breaks loose — particularly for our protagonist Lily Coulson (Odessa Young), a high-school girl carrying on a sexting affair with her married next-door neighbor (Joel McHale), and her closest friends Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra).

Before the madness erupts, however, Assassination Nation depicts a town already teetering on the edge of ruin — even if nobody quite realizes it. The first half of the film shows the four girls navigating a world where judgment, posturing, and misunderstanding rule the day, fueled by the breakneck speed of social media. Ironically enough, before he gets his own digital comeuppance, the principal confronts Lily over a series of explicit nudes she’s drawn; she insists that she’s trying to convey the physical imperfections that girls are always wrestling with, and the reality that nobody is ever flawless. But nuance, sincerity, and humanity are impossible in this ruthless atmosphere. “They tell you that if you’re honest and you say what you feel that you’ll get what you want,” Lily tells us in voice-over, over images of her friends dancing and hooking up. “But the truth is no one wants the real you … They only want pieces and parts. They want to pick and choose.”

Overstuffed with contemporary newspeak, Assassination Nation presents an exaggerated portrait of the sounds and textures of today’s America. The movie even playfully opens with a “Trigger Warning” and proceeds to launch into a rapid-fire montage of all the objectionable things we’re about to see. (“Homophobia … racism … transphobia … fragile male egos …”) But as contrived and stylized as its narrative is, Levinson’s film does capture a certain anxiety that is very much of the moment. Which is why its final scene, of our four heroines, joined by a group of other battle-ready teens, preparing for one final and presumably devastating confrontation with the rest of Salem — the moment referenced in that aforementioned poster — feels like the only possible way to end this picture.

The jury’s out on whether the time we’re living in is any more hopeless than other periods in history. (Let’s face it: 1968 had a lot more assassinations; 1933 had a lot more people on the streets; 1939 had way more Nazis.) But because of the accelerated nature of communication and the way misery, anger, and panic spread like wildfire online, things often feel more hopeless. And our cultural products seem to reflect this, too. You can see traces of this despair in movies as diverse as Sorry to Bother You — whose vision of racial and economic conflict is only partly resolved by a climactic, surreal melee involving genetically engineered, all-powerful Equisapiens (long story) — and Avengers: Infinity War, whose epic tale of superheroes trying to stop the universe’s greatest villain from wiping out half of all humanity ends with … the universe’s greatest villain wiping out half of all humanity.

Watching Assassination Nation’s arch portrait of today’s currents and countercurrents, one senses just how utterly irreconcilable our many differences are. One is tempted to say that it’s a movie made for that 39 percent of Americans who think a second Civil War is around the corner. While the catalyst for the film’s rapidly spiraling cataclysm of violence is an anonymous hacker with uncertain aims, it’s telling that all the hacker has to do to cause a full-on societal meltdown is simply to let everyone know what everyone else is thinking and doing. Honesty, in other words, is the worst policy in the movie’s vision of America.

Speaking of Civil War, with its gleefully nihilistic bloodshed and its sense that we are all just one or two news cycles away from all-out Armageddon, Assassination Nation actually reminds me of a smaller film that came and went last year: Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion’s Bushwick, a sleazy little thriller that depicted an invasion of Brooklyn by a rebel military force from Texas, part of an alliance of secessionist southern states. I first saw Bushwick at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, just days after Donald Trump had taken office; at the time, its conceit of a rogue South allied against the U.S. government felt like a misread prophecy. But as with Assassination Nation, its mood of paranoid desperation rang very true.

Bushwick follows Lucy (Brittany Snow), a grad student on her way to see her grandmother when she finds herself in the middle of an explosive street battle. She joins forces with Stupe (Dave Bautista), a burly ex-marine with excellent survival skills, as they make their way through Bushwick in an attempt to reach a military extraction point. At one point, they interrogate a rebel soldier, who confesses that Brooklyn was chosen as an invasion point because its ethnic diversity and strict gun laws made it weak and defenseless. (Har har.) Of course, the local resistance is scrappy, resourceful, and armed in all sorts of creative ways; the bad guys might have tanks, but the people of Brooklyn have garbage trucks. Nevertheless, the film ends in the middle of a huge battle in the park, during which the invaders appear to be on the verge of conquering all of New York.

And yet, Bushwick isn’t exactly a depressing picture. Not unlike Assassination Nation, there is something weirdly enthralling about the fact that it all ends on the promise of potentially cleansing apocalypse. It speaks to a tendency in today’s movies, a sense that our current social and political trajectories make peaceful reconciliation impossible. True, “peaceful reconciliation” is an inherently uncinematic concept; movies are all about drama, and drama demands conflict. But more than ever, it seems, our cinema has become a cinema of the end, our aesthetic the aesthetic of burn it all down.

Assassination Nation has also been compared to The Purge, in part because it indulges in the spectacle of ordinary people in masks roaming the streets wallowing in their bloodlust. But The Purge franchise itself has changed quite a bit over the past few years — going from a Twilight Zone–inflected home-invasion thriller in the first film to a more pointed allegory in the later entries. And it’s now a fairly middling TV series — a fact which seems to say more about our current predicament than any specific thing that might actually happen on the show.

In the second entry of the film series, The Purge: Anarchy (still the best of the lot), director James DeMonaco presents us with a landscape of inchoate rage and resentment — as soon as Purge Night starts, citizens begin raping and pillaging and murdering with abandon. Even as the protagonists fight back, and try to quell their own violent instincts, the film suggests that wrath and murder are our default settings. Later titles have tried to walk back this notion somewhat. Purge: Election Year, released during the 2016 campaign, gives us a female presidential candidate who is crusading to stop Purge Night, battling the wealthy, pasty, sneering men who control the U.S. government. It ends with her triumphant at the polls, a development which now looks downright fantastical — yet another outdated transmission from a more hopeful time that ultimately wasn’t very hopeful at all.

Meanwhile, this year’s The First Purge gives us a prequel that looks back to the very first Purge Night, showing how initially the promise of sanctioned lawlessness led not to bloodshed but wild hedonism. Frustrated that the residents of Staten Island (where the Purge had its first test run) aren’t offing each other, the men in charge resort to broadcasting video of a stabbing, and floating social-media rage-bait in an effort to turn people against one another. When even that doesn’t work, they finally just send masked soldiers pretending to be ordinary folks out into the streets to start mowing everyone down.

The Purge has somehow gone from being a tale of societal bloodlust and psychosis to one of top-down, coerced slaughter — violence imposed on us against our better, more communal instincts. And while it’s admirable and even kind of interesting that this grind-house-y series has become more responsible, it’s also hard not to feel that explaining away our madness as just the demented fancy of a gaggle of evil elites is an awkward retcon — an attempt to let the rest of us off the hook. It may well be that we are more than capable of harming each other without the intervention of faceless, powerful bogeymen. DeMonaco, after all, first had the idea for The Purge after being involved in a road-rage incident, and recognizing the deep swells of anger within himself.

Of course, these are all just movies, and often stupid ones at that. But sometimes, schlock has a way of bringing things to the surface that more respectable fare is afraid to touch. Maybe that’s why, ultimately, the empowered nihilism of Assassination Nation’s finale, as consciously silly as it is — with the girls all decked out in the costumes of a Japanese cult action movie — feels more cathartic, even emotionally honest. It doesn’t seek reconciliation, or find solutions, or even deliver a cheap and fake happy ending. Because in the movies, we can admit to ourselves that sometimes it’s best to let the temple burn.

Assassination Nation and the Cinema of the End