Girls With Guns

I watched Assassination Nation (2018) because I saw a DVD of it for sale for £3. I remember it being advertised on the London Underground when it came out and it looked vaguely interesting but the cinema run ended very quickly.

The odd thing about watching it now is that that the 2016-8 context seems dated and historical already; especially with the great end credits finale scene of the Jackston State University Marching Band dancing in the riot-torn streets and playing a jazz version of “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus, it feels more like seeing a minor work of Weird Hollywood from 1969. The mystery manipulator behind the plot of the film uses the codename “Er0str4tus”, a connection to the first ever attention-seeker and also a great film from 1967.

We start with a journey around the small town of Salem and a voiceover by Lily Colson saying that this is the “100% true story” of how everyone lost their minds and wanted to kill her and her 3 friends, Em, Bex and Sarah. Of course the idea of a group of women being blamed and persecuted in a town called “Salem” is the first of many rather obvious moves, and the final reveal of Er0str4tus’s identity at the end is quite predictable if you notice a detail mentioned in passing.

During Lily’s monologue at the start there is an explicit “Trigger Warnings” section with clips of scenes to come and issues such as “Transphobia”, “The Male Gaze”, “Racism” etc. There are several moments when the characters ponder out loud about “being characters in a film”, or characters in The Sims. There is some casual unrealism: guns that never seem to need reloading; distances apparently crossed almost instantly; characters inexplicably knowing where to go to effect the great rescue. There is one self-consciously artificial sequence, when the girls stop and then start walking again in sync to the soundtrack, which lightly parodies the “walk-on” scenes in teen movies, but unfortunately it reminded me that the parody was also done in Not Another Teen Movie. These touches make this film seem like a joke-free serious-faced version of the latter. But the mood remains mostly conventional whilst we work through the narrative, and frame-breaking only finally happens with the marching band at the end.

All the young people in this town are devoted to texting, Instagram and social media generally – Facebook is still a big deal for them, which is one of those dated aspects. Lily is constantly being messaged by an older guy who calls himself “Daddy” – he’s the dad of a young girl that she was babysitting for a while ago. We see her meeting the family again at the start, and saying that she can’t do the work anymore as school and college entrance is more important, though we can surmise that she stopped to get away from the creepy older guy.

During one night when the kids are all partying hard, and we get a nice split-screen arrangement to show action occurring in different places, Er0str4tus the hacker commits his first outage by revealing all the private data of Mayor Bartlett. It turns out that the strong family values Republican, who was vocal in his opposition to LGBTQ rights, also had a secret life with special male companions and dressing up in outfits.

Of course the kids are all delighted to see the old fraud in trouble, and his voters hate him. But meanwhile Lily is in trouble with the Principal for her explicit drawing in art class, based on the selfies she’s seen on Instagram. He just doesn’t get what it’s like to be a girl online.

Meanwhile the local news are canvassing reactions to the news and everyone’s angry and moralistic.

Mayor Bartlett turns up and walks down a long corridor, pausing to feel defeated.

The auditorium he goes in to to make his final self-justifying announcement seems to be the same one that the Principal Turrell has to go to to justify himself when his private data is leaked a few weeks later. Unlike the Mayor he makes a fight of it and talks about his background growing up in a poorer neighbourhood and only dreaming of being able to go to college like the white kids nearby; nobody listens to him very much though this is the only time it seems to be noted that this is a reasonably well-off suburban world.

Note that Lily has a poster of Times Square, the story of 2 teen runaways who inspire angry girls to get angry and anarchic.

Everyone finds the revelations about the big respectable men hilarious and icky, but it all changes a bit when Er0str4tus starts revealing the private data of the High School kids as well.

Then things turn nasty. The top cheerleader gets attacked with a baseball bat by another girl whose sex secrets she revealed in a message; soon lots of angry men are getting masked up and marching about. Lily herself gets chased about by an angry guy she has to smack in the face, and we never exactly learn the consequences of that event as the final battle seems to be provoked by a false confession from some other hacker guy who was waterboarded into telling what he knew about Er0str4tus, and that he thought Lily was the centre of it all.

Though they don’t know it, the girls are all going to be under siege soon. They’re wearing red outfits as an apparent homage to the Japanese girl gang revenge film they were watching.

Turns out that there are plenty of weapons in this town once you knock out the nice guys who turned out to be nasty.

When this film is being serious it’s rather reminiscent of tiresome 90s fare like Natural Born Killers, but with “the media” replaced with “social media” as the moral panic or whatever the point was. Lily’s monologues early on about everyone being fake and having to put on a mask and phoney identity are just standard teen film fare with added swears and sexual details. But now the girls have their own gang and aren’t just existing at the periphery of a boy gang. Her final call to arms, which seems to be put out as a rallying cry on social media, which calls up an army of angry girls to stand behind the 4 warriors, is strongly signalled as the big message of it all. Miley Cyrus herself might have wanted the role just to deliver it:

LILY: Smile, open up, cross your legs, spread your pussy, speak softer, scream louder, be quiet, be confident, be interesting, don’t be so difficult, be strong, don’t fight back, be an angel, be a whore, be a princess, be anything you want to be, even the president of the United States of America. Just kidding. Fuck you.

“Not all men” gets included ironically after one of the bad guys gets his life spared. “It’s not what it looks like!” is also rather amusing when we see what another bad guy wants to be excused for.

The camera work of this film is great, with many long tracking shots that sometimes flip over to show a world upside down just before it breaks down, for example in the scene when the cheerleader gets hit. The big siege and battle at Em’s mum’s house is a superb sequence, constantly scanning around and showing the home invasion occurring at multiple angles and then going in to big bloody shootout.

Altogether this is a decent bit of entertainment, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets “rediscovered” in years to come. Other films about girl gangs are available: get the 2nd adaptation of Foxfire, the one by the French director, that sticks to the original book, not the 90s version with Angelina Jolie.

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