Its story couldn’t be more contemporary — what happens to a small community when people’s online secrets start getting exposed — but “Assassination Nation” is clearly the product of artists with a deep background in old movies. The plotline recalls “Le Corbeau” (that 1943 Nazi-occupation classic about a French village torn apart by poison-pen letters) by way of “Jawbreaker,” and the red, white and blue split-screens will tickle both fans of Godard’s “Made in U.S.A.” and Abel Gance’s “Napoleon.”
And even if the somewhat scattershot “Assassination Nation” might not wind up being as well remembered in cinema history, audiences may nonetheless forgive the film’s shortcomings because of its sheer verve and chutzpah. Whatever faults lie in the script by writer-director Sam Levinson (“Another Happy Day”) get swallowed up by the flash and dazzle of his direction and the editing by Ron Patane (“A Most Violent Year”).
For popular girls Lily (Odessa Young, “A Million Little Pieces”), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), Bex (Hari Nef, “Mapplethorpe”) and Em (Abra), all is as it should be in their quaint suburb of Salem (Yes, Salem.) They’ve got students and teachers alike wrapped around their finger, and adult men stare agape when they walk down the street in formation.
But early on in the film, someone hacks into the mayor’s computer and releases all his personal info, revealing that this conservative “family values” candidate likes cross-dressing and having sex with other men. He responds to this revelation by shooting himself at a city council meeting.
The next victim is Principal Turrell (Colman Domingo, “Fear the Walking Dead”), a sympathetic figure who nonetheless gets hounded out of his job after the release of some unkind emails and his online porn choices. The revelations keep coming, turning friend against friend and revealing all manner of indiscretions — including Lily’s sexts with her married babysitting client Nick (Joel McHale) — and by the time Lily is accused of being the hacker, Salem gets whipped up into a paranoid frenzy, with everyone wondering whose secrets will be revealed next.
“Assassination Nation” certainly has style to burn, from the wardrobe color choices to the intensity of the action. (There’s a heart-stopping moment in which Em’s mom Nance, played by the great Anika Noni Rose, fends off a home intruder as cinematographer Marcell Rév (“White God”) shoots entirely through the windows from the outside.)
But Levinson has still created such a recognizable-enough reality that when the story goes to extremes, it feels like the movie’s going off the rails. An evil sheriff tells the girls that the FBI traced the hacking from Lily’s house, and when Em quite rightly asks, “Then why aren’t they here?” the film never has an answer, since that would get in the way of mob frenzy and vigilante justice.
The central quartet of actresses is terrific, carving out individual characters even in a film that’s often more interested in them for their visual iconography than for their inner lives. (It’s notable that even when they are surrounded by chaos, these women always have each other’s backs.) Nef’s Bex, in particular, is the kind of teen we haven’t seen much yet in the movies: a transgender character played by a trans actress, Bex is completely self-possessed and utterly comfortable with both her gender and her sexuality. She might have to deal with the mercurial and unreliable nature of the teen-boy libido, but Bex is nobody’s victim.
It’s always apparent what “Assassination Nation” is going for, and it more often than not fulfills its ambitions, and the hits more than make up for the misses. It’s not going to tell audiences anything they don’t already know about human nature and social media and hidden inner lives, but it explores all of those ideas with visual ferocity.