“Assassination Nation” takes place in Salem, a town that director and writer Sam Levinson uses to play out his interpretation of — you guessed it — a modern witch-hunt.
When an unknown hacker releases the online history of the mayor, the high school principal and, eventually, half of the town, turns into 4chan-fueled chaos.
The four girls at the center of the film become the scapegoats and victims for and of the town’s biggest fears and hatreds.
Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Hari Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) and Em (Abra) are frank about their sex lives; they party and drink on the weekends. Lily, whose affair with a much older man gets leaked, is framed for the data disaster, and the taunts and death threats pop up almost immediately.
At points, “Assassination Nation” is pulpy fun. There’s a horrific home-invasion scene that makes for a tense viewing. Nef’s improvised lines are impeccable — “I’m not a bitch. I’m a feminist” is a personal favorite. Certain sequences, laden with parties and glittery mini-dresses, feel like swiping through Snapchat stories on a Friday night — frenetic, flashy and vaguely incoherent.
You can feel “Assassination Nation” fumbling for moments of cult favoritism. Picture Bella Thorne in Mena Suvari’s infamous “American Beauty” cheerleading performance, the dark comedy of “Heathers” or the masks of “The Purge.”
Take that potential and add unflinching violence toward the film’s leading women. Before they can fight back, they’re shamed, abused and physically assaulted. No man can be trusted in Salem. Lily delivers impassioned voice-overs about resisting. While the anti-misogynistic sentiments ring true, they’re poorly written.
And so, while “Assassination Nation” is occasionally stirring, it’s not as funny — or as biting, or even as interesting — as its cult predecessors and inspirations.
Even when the women take control, strutting down the street with guns in arm, we know that they deserve more than this fleeting moment of vigilante justice.
They deserve a better movie, one composed of more than just a weak mashup of cultural touchstones and tepid satire.
Remember the rhyme about Lizzie Borden — the one who was accused of taking an ax and giving her mother 40 whacks? (And then her father 41?)
The rhyme gets some of the facts wrong, but Lizzie lives again in “Lizzie,” a speculative retelling of the Borden family’s gruesome 1892 murders. The film plays on theories of abuse and an affair between Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) and her maid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) to redeem its title character — or at least give her an acceptable motive.
“Lizzie” is also a study of its title character. She is infamously fascinating, from her independent spinsterhood to her intellect and obsession with animals. There’s also the fact that she was accused of killing her stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and father (Jamey Sheridan).
Director Craig Macneill uses the film’s speculation to make the murders seem like a liberation for Lizzie and Bridget.
The house they live in is oppressive, with its humid air, incessant creaks and Lizzie’s father, an abusive patriarch, at its helm. The women wear tight corsets and layers of stiff clothing — in moments of anguish, it looks like the seams on their dresses are about to split. When they commit the murders they shed their clothing — a symbolic release of the world’s limitations.
The sound control in “Lizzie” is also impressive — with a minimal soundtrack, each creak of the floorboards aches. Even the rustling of heavy skirts becomes ominous.
However, the pacing is uneven. Most audiences can likely anticipate the gruesome killings, so the period afterwards is far less thrilling.
Maybe speculation about an antiquated murder is acceptable. Screenwriter Bryce Kass does bring modern nuance to the story, like conflict around Lizzie and Bridget’s class differences. When Lizzie retaliates after her father assaults Bridget, Bridget reminds Lizzie that her economic well-being still rests on his opinion of her.
Still, it’s a movie based on theories. Speculation does make Lizzie’s story tense, fascinating and even heartbreaking. But the revenge narrative that the movie assigns Lizzie sometimes feels as uncomfortable as the corsets seen onscreen.
“Lizzie” seeks to correct, or at least reimagine, the lies perpetuated through the Lizzie Borden rhyme. But it still exaggerates the myth itself.