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In every heart lurks a scandal.
My pastor said something like that in church one Sunday morning, after yet another religious leader had fallen from grace. He was reminding us that as angry and as betrayed as we might've felt in that moment, we're all sinners—that all of us hold thoughts and feelings that might shock, even horrify, those around us.
Today, our flawed hearts aren't as hidden as they once were. Every text, every post, every search engine query is dutifully documented and logged. Much of it still lives—unseen but not unseeable. Our hearts' secret desires and unchecked thoughts float in the internet ether.
What might hackers find in our online souls? What conclusions might they draw?
The new mayor of the small town of Salem ran his campaign on a family-values platform: traditional morality, old-fashioned ethics, all that stuff. Then one day a hacker forced his way into the mayor's online life and released it to the world: He had solicited gay sex. Wore women's lingerie. The world saw pictures of it all.
The next day, the mayor walked into a packed, angry meeting house, pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head.
The suicide was shown online. (Of course.) It went viral. (Of course.)
The hacker's next victim was Salem's high school principal. The principal learned of the leak and warned his wife. He couldn't remember everything in his browser cache, of course, but he figured his online life was relatively clean.
But in the data dump were eight photos of the principal's 6-year-old girl on his phone, naked, in the bathtub. The people of Salem called him a pedophile. A child molester. When he takes the podium to insist he is neither, they boo him off the stage, ready to tear him apart.
Lily and her three best friends, Bex, Sarah and Em, watch the leaks as they roll out. Transsexual Bex celebrates the mayor's death, given his conservative political leanings. But Lily insists it's sad for both him and his family. "You can disagree with him and still feel empathy," she says. When her parents call her principal a pervert, Lily disagrees. "Nudity is not inherently sexual," she says, reminding her mom and dad that they have a picture of her, as a baby, on the mantel, not wearing a stitch of clothes.
But Lily speaks from a slight remove. After all, none of her data was leaked. None of her secrets were exposed.
Things are about to grow a lot more crazy in Salem, thanks to the hacker's unfettered access to seemingly everyone's data. Thousands of people.
And as Assassination Nation tells us itself, "I will warn you that it gets pretty graphic."
Make no mistake: Assassination Nation is not what you would call a Plugged In sort of movie. But it does make a Plugged In sort of point in its cautionary, even mournful stance about the invasiveness of social media and technology. Also, some characters risk their lives for others.
Many of the movie's villains say they're out to defend traditional morality. And while that morality isn't explicitly tied to religion or faith here, it's not a huge leap to read the film, in part, as a scathing excoriation of conservative Christian values (which are deemed both wildly judgmental and deeply hypocritical). And the fact the film chose to name the fictional town "Salem" is, naturally, suggestive of the infamous witch hunts associated with another town of the same name.
Lily derisively references the online phrase "#blessed" in a rant skewering the lies we tell ourselves and the emptiness that's sometimes at work in online conversations. Someone wears a necklace with a cross.
Lily gets hauled into the principal's office to explain a pornographic image she drew of a fully nude woman—possibly herself—masturbating. She explains that the drawing was essentially a sad statement on the state of sexualized online discourse. She argues that the picture represents countless naked selfies the woman in the image took of herself to look "perfect" for her online oglers, and how the real scandal is billions of naked selfies floating around online. "Maybe it is explicit or extreme, but it sure as h--- looks like life to me," she tells the principal.
Lily indeed has plenty of sensual images floating around online: We see dozens where she poses suggestively and erotically in her underwear. She sends them both to her high school-age boyfriend and a much-older "admirer" she calls "Daddy." (We read lots of explicit text exchanges, as well as seeing the pictures she shares.)
Daddy turns out to be the married father of a girl she used to babysit. She tells a friend how the man used to drive her home, and one day he put her hand on her thigh—jump-starting their mostly online affair. Later, Daddy takes Lily into his daughter's room ("Princess" is strung up in lights over her tiny bed) where he attempts to have sex with her.
Bex, Lily's transsexual BFF, dresses in women's clothing and talks frequently about LGBTQ issues. A high school boy takes Bex into a back room during a party, and the two make out before the boy and Bex apparently have a sexual encounter (we see some explicit movements, but no nudity) that the boy feels shame about as soon as the interlude is over. But their one-night-stand is revealed in the hacker's data dump, spurring the boy's friends to make scads of derogatory remarks about both him and Bex.
Lily and her friends often dress in provocative garb (including underwear and swimsuits) and talk frankly and frequently about various sexual experiences and body parts. We see various teen girls make out with various teen boys. Pictures of the mayor dressed up in women's underwear (including thongs) proliferate online.
Lily takes provocative pictures of herself in a high school bathroom. When her pictures are leaked, a couple of guys follow her in a car. They call her a "whore" and "Salem's own porn star," and they proposition her for sex. (She's called a "whore" elsewhere, too.)
One girl's mom receives a foot massage from an apparent suitor. The girls describe the suitor as looking very creepy, one calling him "Sir Rapes-a-lot." Lily's father says he felt uncomfortable seeing Lily naked by age 2; Lily wonders why that would be, given that she's his daughter. Bex and a girl named Em dance sultrily with each other: Given that Bex has still has the biology a guy but considers himself a woman, it's difficult to know exactly how to classify the scene. There are references to pedophilia.
One sad result of all the leaks of secret information and images is an eruption of brutal violence in Salem.
In an effort to get away from an assailant, Lily runs into a bathroom and finds it covered in blood, with a dead body in the tub. She slips repeatedly in blood smeared across the bathroom floor. Her attacker barges in but has his throat sliced open: The blood pours and squirts from his neck onto Lily's face and, eventually, to the floor itself, commingling with the other victim's hemoglobin.
A man shoots himself graphically in the head, and his suicide is later replayed, from different camera angles, on social media. Elsewhere, others are shot in the head or torso, almost always accompanied by shocking eruptions of blood.
Sometimes the carnage can be extreme: One man has his body blown open by a rifle blast, completely covering a car windshield with gore. A woman is apparently killed via a blow from a baseball bat; the attacker is later led away, her hands covered in blood. A man is thwacked in the face with a shovel, which is also accompanied by blood splatter. (His attacker nearly hits him again, but thinks better of it.) Someone dies by a nail gun in a swimming pool. We hear the trigger pulled repeatedly as the water grows more and more crimson.
Someone is nearly lynched in a streetlight. A woman is chased by a would-be killer with a knife. Women are held at gunpoint and dragged across floors and through streets—sometimes through pools of blood. Lily's brother discusses a video he watched online of a family getting mauled by seven lions, calling it "pretty cool."
Lily's boyfriend (along with several of his friends) attacks her. They forcefully pull up her shirt (from the rear) and pull down her pants (just a bit) to reveal a birthmark—proving she's the person in some faceless risqué photos that have been leaked. He forces her to turn around and have her picture taken, thus revealing her identity and, he hopes, ruining her life.
A girl tells her friends that if her own data was leaked, it would look like "a snuff film." The friends of Bex's temporary lover suspect the boy will commit suicide soon. "I would," the ringleader says. (He later dubs his posse "Slay 'em High.") Someone bites into a would-be rapist's lip or tongue, drawing blood.
The film eventually transitions into something of a revenge fantasy, with the four lead characters killing several of their would-be assailants. In the end, the girls face dozens more—all of whom appear to be men—but they're suddenly backed up by mostly women, giving the impression of some sort of gender-based war. "You want this in real life now?" Lily says in a voiceover. "Give it your best shot."
Crude or Profane Language
About 160 f-words—not counting a song played during the credits that includes many more. The s-word is used about 20 times, too, as well as one use of the c-word. We also hear many other profanities and slurs including "a--," "b--ch," "h---," "f-g," and lots of crude anatomical terms. God's name is misused five times, including twice with "d--n." Jesus' name is abused four times, once with an f-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters smoke and share marijuana. We see several people, many of them underage, drinking—sometimes pouring what appear to be whole bottles of vodka down teenagers' throats.
Other Negative Elements
When Lily confesses to her parents that she's the girl in some sensual photos circulating around town, her mother and father forcibly throw her out of the house. "I love you! I love you! Please! I'm sorry!" she cries. But to no avail.
In an effort to save his own skin, someone frames Lily as the data hacker. Lily, in a bit of offscreen narration, suggests that family and friends never want the "real you." Instead, they only want a version of you that you pretend to be or that they imagine you to be.
Assassination Nation is an angry film, one that's both confused and confusing. It has so many targets that it can be difficult to keep them all straight. One of those targets is, well, us. The sort of folks, Christian or not, who'd be inclined to read (and write) Plugged In movie reviews.
In a narration near the end of the film, Lily allows that perhaps she's immoral or sexually promiscuous, that she's made mistakes. But none of her actions can "hold a candle to your righteousness and hypocrisy," she accuses.
There's some truth here—certainly in the context of the movie and sometimes in real life, too. I go back to what I wrote in the beginning: In every heart lurks a scandal. We're all broken people. None of us are perfect, though sometimes we pretend or imagine ourselves to be better than we are.
The people of Salem turn into bloodthirsty Pharisees, determined to draw blood (and lots of it) from sinners. And even when they don't wield literal axes, the emotional blows they deliver can still be emotionally devastating. Watching Lily's parents physically throw their repentant, weeping daughter out of the house—a girl who'd made some mistakes, but one who, quite honestly, is still just a girl—is pretty heartbreaking. And how often do we do that in our own communities, bringing down the hammer when we should make a little room for grace?
But to scrap righteousness altogether, as the movie suggests we should … well, that's hardly the answer, is it? Yes, we're fallen creatures. But that's no reason to wallow on our bellies. Yes, we're broken. But through God, we can be made whole. We can strive to be better.
Assassination Nation is not about getting or being better. Indeed, this film is literally about showing the worst in all of us, and as explicitly as seems possible. It's as graphic and as depressing a movie as I've seen this year, with a salient point or two thrown in the muck along the way.
Odessa Young as Lily; Hari Nef as Bex; Suki Waterhouse as Sarah; Abra as Em; Colman Domingo as Principal Turrell; Bill Skarsgård as Mark; Joel McHale as Nick; Anika Noni Rose as Nance; Bella Thorne as Reagan
Good media discernment is about guarding our eyes and hearts before we watch or listen. And it's also about grappling with the entertainment we do see or hear. That's why the Plugged In Blog is devoted to guarding, discussing and grappling.
Protecting our families today is more vital than ever. And by partnering with ClearPlay and Net Nanny, Focus on the Family hopes to point you to resources and tools that can help you navigate the entertainment world around you.