[Sundance 2018] Assassination Nation Review: The Salem Witch Trials in the Digital Age

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Assassination Nation takes the Salem witch trials to the modern age — but gives the "witches" in question automatic weapons with which to fight back.

Director: Sam Levinson
Summary: High school senior Lily and her crew of besties live in a haze of texts, posts, selfies, and chats—just like the rest of us. So when a provocateur starts posting details from the private digital lives of everyone in their small town of Salem, the result is a Category 5 shitstorm. We're talking browser histories, direct messages, illegal downloads, secret text chains, and way, way, way worse. People get angry. Like, "rampaging murder posse" angry. And Lily finds herself right in the middle.

Assassination Nation
Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The question of how we would react to historical events in the modern age compared to the past is something we ponder a lot in fiction. In the case of Assassination Nation, we are looking at the concept of the Salem witch trials in the age of social media.

A hacker has started to leak all of the dirty digital secrets that the people of Salem have been hiding on their phones, Twitter accounts, and more — but the focus suddenly turns to Lilly. When her darkest secret is out for all to see, she is slut shamed, and soon the entire town is out for Lilly's (and her friends') blood — quite literally. The movie begins with a series of "trigger warnings" that include some humorous ones such as "fragile male egos" as the movie paints targets on everyone in the town. Everything starts to fall apart, and it falls apart very quickly.

The thing that makes this version of the witch trials very different is that these girls have been raised in a world that hates them. Lilly explains all of the work that goes into looking "#flawless" in the leaked naked selfie and various pressures that teenagers of the modern age go through. She is more than a little prepared when the world decides that she and her friends deserve to die for their perceived crimes. They are able to pick up weapons and defend themselves in a way we only get in slightly trashy gorefests like this.

We have a fun little cast of young women to follow, and all of them are fascinating in their own right. Hari Nef shines as a transwoman actually playing a transwoman on screen where she isn't the butt of the joke. We are warned about transphobia in the "trigger warnings", but it's never against Nef's Bex. The movie makes it quite clear that the problems people have with her has to do with another of those trigger warnings: fragile male egos.

This is a movie that aims for the stars when it comes to making a point, and sometimes its ambition is a bit bigger than its capabilities. It doesn't make the movie bad, but it does come across as a bit unfocused. That might have something to do with the generation it is commenting on. The digital age means we're constantly connected and we're always looking at four different screens while reading three different news stories and tweeting. By the time the bloodbath really hits, the message feels a little lost in the fray. When Lilly delivers an impassioned takedown, it doesn't quite feel like the movie has earned it. It doesn't diminish from the moment, though.

Assassination Nation isn't a perfect movie, but for a "girl against the world" type of bloodbath, it's a ton of fun. Put it in a Alamo Drafthouse, add a girls-only screening, and let the fun begin.

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About Kaitlyn Booth

Kaitlyn is the Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. She loves movies, television, and comics. She's a member of the UFCA and the GALECA. Feminist. Writer. Nerd. Follow her on twitter @katiesmovies and @safaiagem on instagram. She's also a co-host at The Nerd Dome Podcast. Listen to it at http://www.nerddomepodcast.com

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