It’s been a week of angry white men yelling about their reputations, and the bodies of young women that they once felt beholden to. A week of bodies and sex and secrets and the politics that surround them.
It is in this week that I sat down to watch the latest in Hollywood flops, Assassination Nation.
I say flops because the film made $420k in its opening weekend, and in my town it’s only playing at one theater at one time: 12:05 PM. If you read the horoscopes of studio films, this is the senseless weeping of a distant producer as Saturn rises. Or something equally full of awe and terror.
It feels trite to relate a movie to a movement, to say “yes, this movie is a reaction to the #MeToo movement,” an element ultimately weakened by it’s nepotistic direction (it stars many a child of more famous parents, down to the director Sam Levinson) and its male director announcing at the top in trigger warnings that this film features the Male Gaze as if loudly announcing it will somehow absolve the movie of this, its consistent sin. This is not “Heathers for the Trump era,” or whatever clickbait title is being gently coaxed into being. Or perhaps it is. The triteness, the oversimplification to tie down a movement in the candy-colored cheapness of an independent film about young women with samurai swords and baseball bats and a soundtrack that takes as many odes from Drive as it does Dario Argento, feels like ignoring a steady rise of media that exists in isolation and companion to the movement itself.
I don’t necessarily recommend Assassination Nation.
I know during this week, where men were crying on TV about whether or not you could sexually assault someone as a virgin (you can) I wanted to taste blood in my teeth. I wanted to burn the world down and finally be warm in its fires. I wanted the establishment gone. I wanted the trauma of my past to be the lighthouse that guided me back to every man who has ever hurt me so that I could, in turn, hurt them. I wanted blood, sweat, urine. I wanted fear. I wanted that power, because in this week, more so than most weeks I could feel my lack thereof. I felt the helplessness of my position and my youth and my perceived gender.
For this, Assassination Nation was a balm. It has a dream-like quality to it that other films have not quite achieved (Tragedy Girls, Spring Breakers) and the same male laden gaze at young, beautiful women. It takes place at a high school full of college aged models, famous faces pressed into Lolita-rave looks, middriffs bared, feet clad in $90 platform boots, wearing shorts so small they double as underwear. It’s the same kind of Male Gaze (to paraphrase the opening trigger warnings) that believes in the lingerie clad slumber party pillow fight, breasts swaying in the light of a well lit window before ravenous, masturbating hoards hidden deep in leafy bushes. There’s nothing terribly novel about it, even wrapped in its own Purge flavored, anarchic trappings. And yet.
You know the formula. The town is Salem, and so it needs a witch and the witch must burn. There’s nothing remarkable about any of the performances from the lead actresses — they are stand ins in this dream state for the audience, the woman who knows what it’s like to be called a slut when she’s only slept with one man. The woman whose family casts her out for being taken advantage of by a much older man. A lone exception may be Hari Nef, whose performance as Bex remained a consistent high point throughout, buoyed in part by her own adolescent trauma and fire — how can someone so inconsequential make you feel inconsequential she asks when confronted with the boy who wanted to fuck her, but didn’t want to be seen with her.
Everyone has secrets, it’s just that in Salem, one boy has taken it upon himself to share those secrets with 4chan and the rest of the school. The mayor is a cross-dresser? The principal and his wife discuss her painful miscarriage? All ready to be meme’d and passed ad nauseum, down to the moment when the mayor pulls an R. Budd Dwyer and shoots himself live on television.
The moral of this story is that high school boys are terrible and you should kill them. It takes awhile to get to that point, meandering between scenes on hacking, girls hanging out under covers, drunken parties lit by camera flashes, loud conversations over fraught family dinners about pedophilia and boundaries and sex. There’s a powder pink nihilism to it – one thinks of the scene in Spring Breakers where a group of women in pink ski masks dance with AK’s around James Franco as he plays a Brittany Spears song on the piano. Why are there no male rape revenge films, one of the girls ask as she lays on an impossibly large bed with her three best friends, each one wearing a red trenchcoat and wondering if they will survive the night.
Assassination Nation is bound up in a dreamscape where Hari Nef can point at the air and turn on the soundtrack, the kind of world where a woman outfitted with a pair of katanas is a threat as well as looking deeply badass, the kind of pop culture referential media dream where anything is possible and a woman can finally, finally get her revenge. It’s ultimately tied with an ill-fitting bow of pop culture feminism, the kind that parades in pussy hats and sweatshop shirts that say “The Future is Female,” but it’s at least trying something.
And in this week of lazy, male entitlement, sometimes, that’s enough.