Editor’s Notes: The Purge: Election Year is out today in wide theatrical release.
The Purge has claimed the mantle from Saw as the audience-punishing, horror-porn franchise du jour, a seemingly endless series of carbon copy movies, hastily mounted and released on an annual loop for an easy cash grab. Good horror films historically tap into and comment upon prevalent social anxieties, but this particular brand of homogenized blunt-force smut cynically preys on and exploits the base fears of audience members.
. . . this particular brand of homogenized blunt-force smut cynically preys on and exploits the base fears of audience members.
Everyone has a buried fear of being tortured; the Saw movies put a face to that fear, even if it was in the form of a stupid clown puppet. The Purge franchise, however, may yet be more insidious, since it clings to a more tangible public anxiety: retaliation and self-defense against would-be predators. We live in the Stand Your Ground culture – ya know, the one that has permitted the Darren Wilsons of the world to roam free, and someone like George Zimmerman to not only roam free but also willfully gloat about his freedom, baiting the system that failed to convict him.
In broad concept, The Purge has the capability to dissect and satirize public hysteria over these cultural divides – racism, class warfare, abuse of power, and certainly gun culture. Instead, these films have gone the route of cheap exploitation, abusing notions of cinematic escapism about as badly as Zimmerman abused the Stand Your Ground law. And the devolution throughout this now trilogy (!) is notable – the 2013 original at least made an effort to sustain the concept of a futuristic world where all crime is permitted for one night each year in an effort to satisfy the darker instincts within the cultural anger, but its sequels have bastardized any fraying claims to satiric legitimacy. Any new Purge entry exists purely as a freak show, excusing away its thinly veiled vigilantism by foisting more obvious cultural touchstones as the central hub around which its ultraviolence orbits, but nevertheless inciting the less stable masses to gear up for any such real-world “Purges.” If you don’t buy that analysis, I’ll remind you that back in 2013, as the original film’s credits rolled, the woman next to me whispered to her friend, “I’m gettin’ a gun!” Unsurprisingly, sitting in the murmuring crowd before The Purge: Election Year began, a conversational voice sprung up from the row behind me: “Ya know, I really think we need to make something like this happen in real life.”
Setting this film during an election year offer additional opportunity for prescient satire, though DeMonaco seems interested neither in satire nor prescience beyond their shallowest forms.
So arrives The Purge: Election Year to aid in the stoking of fear which is at the frightening center of this American election cycle, and which portrays the titular massacre as something of a gothic ceremony rather than a government mandate. One particular looney bird dubs it “Halloween for adults,” and there’s more than a little truth to that – enraged masses do not merely wreck the night with crime and looting, but garb themselves in marvelously garish regalia, swinging around medieval weaponry and ritualistically prancing about as they conduct their mayhem. This isn’t merely crime and murder, it’s psychotic performance art. Writer-director James DeMonaco – the man who, remarkably, is this series’ sole artistic voice – shoots these hooligans with the creepily obsessive gloss with which Michael Bay films lingerie models in Super Bowl commercials, replete with gratuitous Dutch tilts and hazy focus dips. It should come as no surprise to literally anyone that Bay serves as a producer on this series.
Setting this film during an election year offer additional opportunity for prescient satire, though DeMonaco seems interested neither in satire nor prescience beyond their shallowest forms. There is a female presidential candidate (Elizabeth Mitchell, bless her) whose campaign pitch is to end The Purge once and for all, and a cadre of arch old-white-man politicians hellbent on preserving the status quo. The film’s advertising features faux campaign commercials with the slogan “Keep America Great,” so at least someone had the right idea. Too bad those advertisements are more directly incisive than the film they’re hyping, which abandons any polemical context after the first five minutes and plods down the same dangerous slash-and-shoot path this franchise has now molded into a predetermined template. Such careless choices are always alarming, but especially so considering the clear and present stakes of this year’s U.S. presidential election, where one of the options is the personification of id whose bile spewing is willful advocacy for the type of disgruntled person who would find catharsis in a movie like The Purge: Election Year.
Of course, there will be plenty who instruct me to keep my opinions out of it. “It’s only a movie,” they’ll say. “It’s just extreme entertainment – don’t color it with your politics.” But this is a film that literally baits the public with its political overtones and then pulls the cowardly switch into the standard casual nihilism we’ve all come to expect. If the filmmakers don’t act responsibly, the viewers – and the critics – must.
A film that literally baits the public with its political overtones and then pulls the cowardly switch into the standard casual nihilism we’ve all come to expect. If the filmmakers don’t act responsibly, the viewers – and the critics – must.