When grading films, books or any other type of entertainment, there are a lot of factors I take into account — acting, writing, editing, character development, cinematography, direction, pace and overall entertainment factor, among others. This is why I very rarely give anything an F, as there is almost always some redeemable qualities that keep it from being a complete disaster. It’s also why I’ve never walked out of a movie; no matter how bad it is, there’s always a chance the film will redeem itself in some way. Within the first minutes of Assassination Nation, the new sociopolitical mind rape that just hit theaters, I was sickened and completely disengaged; an F was certainly on the horizon as I bordered that fine line between holding true and walking out. As the movie progressed, so too did my tolerance to the point where it was clear there could have been a good, meaningful film somewhere hidden under the grotesque masks of sadism.
Assassination Nation doesn’t hold back, turning everything from the character development and cinematography to the artistic style up past eleven. It opens a window into our culture and then twists and mangles it into something so hyper-extreme, it takes time to truly understand what’s happening and why it’s an important message to understand. Some may never catch on, others will see the truth right away — a culture so ingrained in social media and mob rule, where just one voice can incite millions of sheep into believing because they can’t or won’t understand the severity of what they’re doing because they’re unwilling to think for themselves in fear of being stigmatized. This type of behavior is real and has slowly become more rationalized over time. Nation uses that kernel of truth and spins it out of control in a way that’s not easy to ingest.
At the center of this twisted, distasteful portrayal is Lily (Odessa Young). She is a very intelligent eighteen-year-old high school senior who understands the world in a completely different way than her peers, her family and society as a whole. She sees through all the lies and manipulation and pushes back against them, regardless of what others might say or do. Yet, as she tries to rebel against the commonplace without overtly flaunting that rebellion, she remains hidden under a societal mask. When the principal of the school (Colman Domingo), a strong, supportive mentor for Lily, is hacked and all of his texts and browsing history are leaked to the world, she’s the only one who sees the man for who he is, and not in how the mindless cabal of group-think judges him. Because of her own dirty secrets, she understands that jumping to conclusions about someone you don’t know can be a very dangerous game.
It’s not until half of the student body is subject to the same hack that things get seriously overblown, and a quiet little town explodes in demonic fervor. Everyone loves a scapegoat; someone they can accuse of wrong-doing, whether that person is the true culprit or not. And even though Lily’s own personal account isn’t one of the targeted, she is inadvertently shamed, ridiculed and ostracized by the entire town, including her own family, because of a sexual text relationship she has with the older neighbor (Joel McHale) of one of her friends (Abra). As the lies, misdirection and unforgiving manipulation builds, the town goes after Lily’s head for the simple accusation of being the one behind the hacks.
The first ten minutes of the film are brazen trash. No one is likeable, the artistic style is all over the place and by the end of it, you feel in need a long, hot shower. We all know there are teenagers that engage in certain type of dialogue or in seedy type of behavior, but all of the dialogue, speech patterns and body language are so overblown, it becomes less about creating an atmosphere and more about perverted glorification.
When Nation stops trying to venerate the bratty pack of overly sexualized teens and begins to focus on Lily’s experience of being “outed”, the film begins to find a voice that you can relate to, allowing us to sympathize, and even empathize, with what’s happening to her. Yet, things still don’t feel right, bordering on a narcissistic podium of political correctness. Almost every male character in the film is set up as some overtly masculine douche who’s only intention in life is sex, rape, homophobic slurs, hypocrisy, and more sex. On the flip side, all the females are set up as victims of this supposed patriarchy. It’s not enough to have just one male character show even an ounce of redemption, or one female who is stronger than the hypocritical noise. Not every male is a sycophant, and not every female is a victim, but you wouldn’t know it from this film.
Dig deeper, though, and you start to see a strong argument there for how our current culture works. It doesn’t matter what you believe or how hard you fight against the ruling class, if you disagree in anyway with those in power, your voice will be immediately shut down, regardless of whether you’re right, wrong, innocent or guilty. It’s in this that nothing ever changes; that the desire to rush to judgment will never be resolved because its easier to blame someone for the misgivings of others than to believe its our own fault, or because we as a culture have no patience left with the advent of 24/7 news. Once the truth does come out, it’s then that we move on to the next tragic event and forget what happened to the last person victimized by dishonest narration.
And that may just be the truth behind the lies. However, this idea is extremely difficult to grasp when you have to sift through so much muck and distraction; a bed of ritualistic insanity that never truly formulates past the surface. And that’s why the film is a struggle to get through and has very little redeeming qualities that would justify a recommendation.
My Grade: C-
Though it’s chock full of fun and whimsical moments, The House With a Clock in its Walls is wholly unforgettable because it doesn’t have enough power to draw you in and provide the real magic the film deserves. B+
Oscar Isaac is fantastic in Life Itself, and his pairing with Olivia Wilde is loving, adorable and shocking, but once their chapter ends, the film meanders a little too far from the main theme and becomes a bit predictable and pensive for its own good — though still manages to hit just the right amount of emotional beats. A-
Next week, new movies include Smallfoot, Hell Fest, Night School and Little Women. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.