Hari Nef endures modern Salem Witch Trials in “Assassination Nation”

Assassination Nation. (Sam Levinson/Bron Studios, Foxtail Entertainment & Phantom Four)

Envision a modern day version of the Salem Witch trials, add a little more sex, glamour and gore and you have Assassination Nation, directed by Sam Levinson. The film made its debut on Jan. 21 at the Sundance film festival and hit box offices Sept. 21. It hasn’t been quite the hit it was expected to be, but it does touch on some critical issues such as rape, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, toxic masculinity, classism, gun violence and the male gaze — to name a few.

Critics have been saying that the film doesn’t fully develop its characters and that they are written one-dimensionally. But, Assassination Nation is possibly the first film of its kind, with unique cinematography and deadpan dialogue. The characters are modern and realistic, the music is what actual teens are listening to and the beginning of the film depicts a high school experience that could be happening right now. However, the twist it takes toward the end of the film is so dramatic it makes it difficult for the audience to take it seriously. 

The film begins with four friends. Lily, our main character — a rambunctious young woman with a flare for feminism — stars alongside her friends, Bex, Em and Sarah. We learn that these high school girls are uninhibited with their words, fashion and drug use. The audience discovers that Bex is transgender after she hooks up with her crush on the football team who then asks her to keep their rendezvous a secret in fear of being  judged by his teammates. Bex is played by Hari Nef, a transgender woman who has had quite the buzz in the media recently for her modeling with IMG Models and her activism and online presence at Vice, Dazed and Adult magazine.

We soon find that while Lily is in a relationship with a character named Mark, she appears to be texting someone by the name of “Daddy,” with whom she shares some intimate selfies. Em dances while Sarah smokes the night away and all of this occurs at just one party, on a carefree night.

The following day, the girls wake up to a nightmare: there has been a major, anonymous cyber hack in the seemingly quiet town of Salem. Suddenly, emails, texts, photos and more have been leaked to the entire town. No one’s secrets are safe. It is revealed that the mysterious “Daddy,” that Lily has been messaging is actually the father she babysits for who watches her from his window next door. This breach in privacy touches on so much of what has been going on in popular culture in the past few years. The suburbia of Salem turns into an all out witch-hunt for whoever did this outrageous hack. Lily gets blamed, and before she knows it, she is the one being hunted. But unlike in 1693, she is being pursued by angry football players with assault rifles instead of pilgrims with pitchforks.

The breach in privacy, the main theme in the film, speaks widely to perhaps many breaches that have occurred in the past 10 years in the U.S. The Ashley Madison hack, where countless married men’s affairs were compromised, comes to mind. Most crucially, the film explores how the internet is forever and how our information is never private, no matter how many private browsers we use or how many cookies we clear. We have entered an age of exposure, and it is no longer possible to hide. We are all out in the open.

The rest of the movie is almost rushed to the conclusion, and character development comes to an abrupt stop. It becomes hard to tell if the film is trying to be socially aware and failing or simply pretty to look at. While it is true that the film touches on ideas that are too taboo for the big screen most of the time, it is all so jumbled together in a fast paced manner that it can be easy to miss the real message.

Even so, this stylistic choice is what made the film so entertaining while still managing to give the audience a message about the ideals of humanity and how we really haven’t changed all that much since the time of the Salem witch trials. Today, we just have new ways of demonizing women in our society.   

Contact CU Independent Arts Writer Sofia Harris at sofia.harris@colorado.edu.

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