The dark side of our digital footprint is exposed in writer-director Sam Levinson’s topical thriller.
When a malevolent data hack exposes the secrets of the small US town of Salem, anarchy descends and four high school girls must fight for survival in the ensuing bloody siege.
Starring Australia’s own Odessa Young as our flawed heroine Lily, Suki Waterhouse, Hari Nef and Abra round out her posse in Assassination Nation, writer-director Sam Levinson’s gory social commentary with lofty intentions. Setting the tone in the opening scene, Lily quotes an author who once said, “Ten per cent of people are cruel, ten per cent are merciful, and the remaining eighty per cent can be swung in either direction.” That author was famed social critic Susan Sontag, remarking upon the lessons she took from the Holocaust.
Between quoting from literature, the four besties largely reside in a world of selfies, emojis, snaps and sexts in this girls-eye view. But, after half the townsfolk’s private info is spewed into public view, Lily is falsely blamed for the hack and becomes a target, banding with her friends to survive a long, blood-soaked night.
“I tore through the script when I first got it and was super excited to meet Sam,” says Waterhouse, 27, when STACK meets with her in Beverly Hills. “It was one of those things where you were like, ‘OK, get me on tape now. I want to be part of this’. Sam had really captured the way teenage girls speak. I wanted to meet this guy who had managed to take how I talk in my room with my friends onto the page.”
Admittedly, it was a risk. “It was one of those things where a lot of things could go wrong and it might not have been nearly as wonderful as it was. Sometimes you don‘t know what you’re getting into,” says the model and fashion designer, whose previous roles include Insurgent, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Love, Rosie.
If Hari Nef was inspired by Levinson’s script, she was also cautious. “It gave me some fear and trepidation because I felt if I went out for this and I got it, it had the potential to launch my career if it was a good film – but if it wasn’t executed well, it could equally end my career, with such salacious content,” she laughs. “So I’m glad it turned out well.”
Assassination Nation – which also stars Bill Skarsgård and Bella Thorne – is certainly a timely reminder of what we put out into the world; not just tweets, but also what we imagine to be our “private texts.”
The paranoia is contagious. “I immediately looked back on my old tweets,” says Waterhouse. “There was nothing that was bad – just more of a free-flow thought, like going and seeing a band and calling them ‘a bunch of fannies’ – which is just not something I would do now. We’re in a time now where you have to be careful because if you say anything wrong, fingers can immediately be pointed.”
Nef is more philosophical. “I feel like whatever is on my phone is probably on everyone else’s phone, right? I don’t think any of us are pure in that sense.”
Both women allow for some duality between their social media profiles and their real selves. “My Instagram is not a realisation of me and I barely even write comments beneath my pictures,” says Waterhouse. “I use it as a picture book.”
Mass hysteria, shaming, trolling, false accusations, scapegoating, hypocrisy, mob mentality and bloodlust are the ingredients of Levinson‘s satirical cocktail, setting his modern-day parable in the same colonial town made infamous 327 years ago for its witch trials, which left 20 people dead.
“I know this movie is angry and shocking and scary,” says the director, “but so is the world right now. This film is about who we are as a nation – how our collective lust for entertainment, humiliation and violence has superseded our sense of self-preservation.”