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Front Page - Friday, September 28, 2018

Critic‘s Corner: Assassination Nation’ is a crucible of cinematic schlock

At this time of increasing political and social turmoil in the United States, we need a movie that reminds us who we are and where we came from – a stirring cinematic treatise that reunifies us as citizens of this great nation and collectively empowers us for the challenges we face.

“Assassination Nation” is not that movie. Instead, it’s a cautionary tale about how precariously close we are to going bug nuts insane.

The story begins with a cell phone hack that exposes the naughty secrets of the residents of Salem, Massachusetts. As the enraged populace looks for the culprit in a modern version of Salem’s historic witch hunt, the people turn on each other, and the ostensibly sleepy little town descends in violent chaos.

Eventually, someone mistakenly points to high school senior Lily Colson as the culprit. To survive, Colson and her three best friends arm themselves to the teeth and fight back in a blood-soaked act of vengeance and self-defense.

How blood-soaked? Think “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill,” a 1965 American exploitation film from director Russ Meyer, a “master” of that genre. Characters are graphically stabbed, eviscerated with a razor, dispatched with a nail gun and disemboweled with a shotgun blast – and those are just the kills I remember. If you have a weak stomach, consider this review to be a public service announcement warning you to steer clear of “Assassination Nation.”

Even if you enjoy the viscera, or can tolerate it, the rewards are few and far between. Visually, director Sam Levinson (son of director Barry “Diner” Levinson) is all over the map as he apes Quentin Tarantino, old school slasher films and the crimson red color palette of “American Beauty.”

Levinson did these things without first figuring out how to do them effectively. When Tarantino used a split screen in “Kill Bill” to show The Bride (Uma Thurman) comatose in bed and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) preparing to poison her, he did so to develop tension about a character’s fate. When Levinson employs a split screen to show three teenage girls worming their way through a chaotic party, it feels unfocused and messy.

Levinson’s overcooked visuals barely conceal the fact that his story is just as fuzzy. From the toxicity of social media, to the terminal indifference of today’s drug-addled youth, to the dangers of mob mentality, Levinson throws a lot of ideas at the screen without making sure any of them stick.

Female empowerment, jingoism and sexually perverted “family values” conservatives all get their moment in the spotlight, but in trying to say too much, “Assassination Nation” says nearly nothing at all.

All of this is unfortunate because flashes of brilliance are visible just beneath the chaos.

In an early scene, the principal of Lily’s high school lectures her for drawing explicit pornography in art class. Lily defends her work, saying, “It’s not about the nudity, it’s about the thousands of naked selfies you took to get just one right.”

The drawings aren’t sexual, Lily argues, they’re tragic in their portrayal of how young girls have adopted the misogynistic attitudes of today’s culture. It’s not easy being a woman in a culture that’s obsessed with perfection and beauty and unkind to anyone who doesn’t meet its impossible standards.

It’s an interesting point, but Levinson the writer leaves it there and moves on to other things.

Levinson, the director, also delivers one tour de force scene – a single, unbroken shot of a home invasion that follows both the culprits and their unsuspecting victims as the camera circles around the outside of the house and peers in through the windows.

The timing of the actor’s movements and the way Levinson builds suspense as he gradually brings these characters together is masterful. Unfortunately, this is the only moment when he shines from behind the scenes and brings something original to the screen.

“Assassination Nation” is an easy pass – not because of the over-the-top carnage but due to its untidy, aimless nature. I could have seen any number of other films (earlier that day, someone told me “The Wife,” which stars Glenn Close, is excellent), but I take solace in knowing I’ve done my duty as the author of this column and spared you the same fate.