SPOILER WARNING: Some spoilers for Assassination Nation below.
Assassination Nation — the modern indie interpretation of the Salem Witch Trials that took Sundance by storm before heading to San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H and then to the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival — is more than just your average thriller. The film serves as a social commentary about modern womanhood. When a small town (aptly named Salem) is hit with a massive data leak, all hell breaks loose. Secrets are revealed, relationships are ruined, and most of all, women are brutally shamed.
“This film addresses the way ‘what is a woman’ and ‘what is feminine’ has been defined, constituted, and allegedly protected by men,” Hari Nef, one of the film’s stars, told MTV News. “And how women today, young girls, are born into this world where they are simultaneously encouraged by popular quote-unquote ‘feminist media’ to be empowered and to speak up and to be themselves, and yet they are also existing under what we can call here a patriarchy of, ‘Don’t be too much of yourself.’”
Rather than accepting their fate, when Lily (Odessa Young), Bex (Nef), Sarah (Suki Waterhouse), and Em (Abra) land in the center of the storm, “we find these four girls breaking out of those paradigms and taking their narrative into their own hands,” Nef described — and that’s when things get really bloody.
Think of it not as a revenge fantasy, but as a story of survival. “These girls aren’t getting back on anybody or any man who has wronged them,” Nef insists. “These girls are fighting for their lives, not for their honor, which is what revenge usually entails. Nobody dies in this movie just because they should and it’s right. They die so the girls won’t die, and that’s an important distinction. People want to project this revenge thing on it, but it’s not revenge when you’re fighting for your life and if the alternative is to be destroyed.”
Here’s more from Nef on modern womanhood and what she hopes audiences get out of Assassination Nation.
MTV News: First, how do you define womanhood in a way that fits with the modern perception?
Hari Nef: As soon as you define womanhood you make a generalization that is doomed to exclude some women or other. I question what womanhood means every day and I’m constantly pushing myself to evolve my conception of womanhood because there are so many different kinds of women, so many different kinds of experiences, and I don’t think they can be encapsulated into a single pithy definition.
MTV News: Lately there’s been a tendency to divide women into categories: white cis, women of color, trans women, etc. Something I found really interesting about this movie is that all the women are together and that’s kind of the power of it.
Nef: I believe looking at feminism intersectionally is essential for building sympathy — and in other cases, empathy — for the experiences of women who are not like you and to understand their experiences and to understand how their experiences differ from your experiences or her experiences. However, the things that oppress women through all these different intersections, come more or less from the same place, they just manifest themselves in different ways. In this film, we’re able to see the unified source of vitriol, righteousness, and hatred that targets these women in a variety of ways. We have to understand our differences as women but seek strength in our unity.
MTV News: I think something that this film does well, too, is to recognize that trauma is trauma and doesn’t try to say any one experience is better or worse.
Nef: There’s no hierarchy here. These girls are trying to survive the night by any means necessary. I think even Em and Sarah, Suki and Abra’s characters, we have that brief shot of their mother being targeted in the grocery store parking lot for sleeping with another woman’s husband, so those two girls are also implicated in some sort of sexual moral impropriety. These things happen.
MTV News: I also want to talk about your character. After the first leak with the mayor, Bex says, essentially, ‘He wouldn’t mourn my death, so why should I mourn his?’ It’s tough because that’s true, but there’s also this idea of whether we have to be empathetic to move forward. What do you think about that kind of apathy?
Nef: When Bex is saying that, she is speaking from a place of deep pain and deep trauma living in a town whose mayor does not acknowledge her humanity. In fact, he questions and denies it, and that is a hostile environment for a young girl. And we see her at the end, she is given the choice to strike back at her assailant, to kill the person who wished death on her and, spoiler alert, she chooses to spare his life, and that encapsulates the message of this film. It’s not about turning the other cheek; it’s about digging somewhere deep down and finding empathy for the people who hate you, breaking the cycle of hatred and vitriol, and if a conversation is impossible, walking away.
She understands that Johnny (Cody Christian) isn’t this person. He’s a person acting in this environment and he’s just a kid, and she’s just a kid, and I don’t think Bex wants the conscience of killing somebody hanging over her for the rest of her life, so she chooses the less juicy, gritty, satisfying option cinematically for a moment that, when I was thinking about it, she could have for the rest of her life. That takes true strength.
MTV News: It humanized that whole scene.
Nef: Well, at the Toronto screening the whole crowd was screaming, “Kill him! Kill him! Kill him!” And I understand the entertainment value of that, but that’s the world we’re living in. And I was so grateful to that Toronto audience for their enthusiasm and for the standing ovation they gave us, but it kind of shows what kind of world we’re living in where even when we have the opportunity to break the cycle of hatred and of vitriol, when we’re given the choice, people want to see someone strike back, and I don’t necessarily think that that makes anything right.
MTV News: Right, it’s hard to be productive when you just want to kill each other.
Nef: It’ll never end. It’ll never end that way.
MTV News: So what was the reaction when they saw Bex walk away?
Nef: They went, “Ooh,” and then there was a moment of silence. And I hoped people were thinking. I hope this movie makes people think. I hope they have fun. I hope we deliver some of those moments where it’s like, “Yeah!” You know, when, spoiler alert, Lily hits the guy in the face with the shovel, and when she shoots the officer who’s trying to shoot her, when she slices open Daddy’s (Joel McHale) throat. Those are those moments where we can really take some nasty satisfaction with what’s going on — but those are the deaths of people who wanted to kill those girls. Bex kills. She kills the assailant in the pool. What choice does she have? But when you have the choice, that’s another question.
MTV News: That’s a moment for humanity. It’s not self-defense at that point, it’s mercy.
MTV News: Along those same lines, what’s amazing to me is that this story was written and directed by a man, and it’s really powerful to see that level of self-awareness.
Nef: I think it shows that these kind of collaborations are possible and that the creative teams of films or television don’t have to be stratified along gender or identity lines for optics in order to be effective. Sam [Levinson] knew his responsibility as the director of this film and he opened up his process to us and took cues from us to guide this film in a direction that was ethical, believable, and felt true not only to life but to us, and from day one he made himself available and he let us improvise, he let us question the script, he let us question him. We had conversations; they weren’t always easy, but they always led us in a direction of — here’s that word again — empathy and understanding, and it’s possible to make these films with people who are not like the people in the films. It just has to be done in a certain way. I haven’t met very many people like Sam who are willing to surrender this rigid auteuristic vision and do something more collaborative, but as Lily says toward the end of the film, “Not all men,” right?
MTV News: Do you think that collaboration made it better?
Nef: If Sam hadn’t been open to our voices and collaboration, I definitely don’t think I would be as proud as I truly am to stand by this film.
MTV News: What about this film makes you proud to stand by it?
Nef: It’s an urgent, provocative social commentary disguised as a genre film that anyone can enjoy. The thrills of the film are a doorway into the heavier themes, and that is the future of quality filmmaking. It’s been stratified so long around these prestige indies and these big-budget blockbusters, and I feel like this film kind of weaves those two worlds together in a way that fascinates and thrills me.