Full disclosure: I’m going into this one entirely cold. I’ve seen and heard enough of The Purge to know that I’m not interested in a mediocre “home invasion” film with a premise that makes no sense. So I haven’t seen the first film and I passed on the sequel.
I was going to skip this movie as well, but the reviews for it have been surprisingly solid. Moreover, given all the violence that’s been dominating our headlines in recent weeks, the timing for The Purge: Election Year seems uncanny. It is, after all, a franchise in which killing each other with impunity for 12 hours every year leads to a stronger and more peaceful America.
I still have no idea how that makes any plausible sense, but it works quite well as an allegory for the state of our nation right now.
In theory, the Purge is supposed to act as a release valve for the various divisions between Americans (ie: political differences, gang violence, bigotry, etc.). In practice, the Purge only deepens those divisions by emboldening those who thrive on conflict. It gives both sides a legitimate way to give into their baser instincts and quite literally kill the opposition instead of only doing it metaphorically.
What’s more, the Purge gives citizens a chance to act out their big Hero Fantasy. Everybody secretly thinks they’re a hero just waiting for their Call to Adventure, and the Purge offers no shortage of perceived villains to overcome. The Purge also plays into the glorification of martyrdom. Look at the various mass shooters we’ve had recently, and you’ll find that quite a few of them were men’s rights activists, racists, religious terrorists, etc. There’s always been a kind of perceived nobility in believing for some cause to the point where someone will die for it and/or kill for it. With the Purge, everyone is free — socially pressured, in fact — to indulge in that delusion.
The Purge is the ultimate fate of a society that cultivates fear and paranoia. A nation in which we’re supposed to be constantly terrified of the very real possibility that the person sitting next to you could pull out a gun or a bomb and destroy everyone in shouting distance within seconds and without any warning. More than that, it’s the logical conclusion of what happens if we give in to entropy and lean into the violence, rather than take steps to tamp down on it.
Furthermore, while the wealthy and powerful have the option to hide in their bunkers with armies of bodyguards, nobody else has that option. This naturally means that those who die in the Purge are mostly the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and those among racial minorities. This in turn means that there’s less money going into social security, welfare programs, affirmative action, and so on, to say nothing of all the brown people who are too dead to vote or run for office. Meanwhile, the weapons manufacturers and insurance companies are taking advantage of the annual holiday to make billions. To say nothing of the “murder tourists” who are bringing in money from other countries just so they can join in the 12 hours of bloodshed.
The upshot is that the whole nation gets whiter as the rich get richer and the poor get killed off. But there’s too much money for the bourgeoisie to make, and the proletariat are having too much fun killing each other for various reasons, so getting rid of the Purge seems to be a political impossibility. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is an idealist who’s running for president on a platform of abolishing the Purge. She’s all about hope and change, and her brand of optimism has built up quite a following. But there are also several voters who won’t support her, either because they don’t think she can win or because they’ve grown too cynical about politics to think she’ll actually deliver on her promises.
There are so many layers to how this premise is used in a way that satirizes the current American sociopolitical climate. And the film is exceedingly blunt in delivering its messages, which can be a double-edged sword.
Being blunt can be an effective way of conveying a message, especially when it’s presented with some other form of entertainment (ie: comedy, allegory, etc.) to sugar-coat the pill. But being blunt is anathema to character development, as characters become one-dimensional vehicles to express certain viewpoints rather than credible and sympathetic human beings. It’s also a dealbreaker for horror, as building up atmosphere, crafting a perfectly-timed scare, and (again) presenting characters whose fates we can invest in all require a subtle touch.
In summary, what we have here is a picture in which there is a very clear polarization between the good guys and the bad guys, such that there’s never any doubt as to why these people are chasing and shooting at each other and whom we should root for. That’s not a horror film — that’s an action movie. And while the film works far more effectively on those terms, it’s hard not to judge the picture as a horror, because that’s how it was marketed. Moreover, even if the movie fails as a horror, there’s still enough disturbing imagery and cheap jump scares to show that the filmmakers clearly wanted to craft a horror movie.
The Purge: Election Year has elements of an intellectual pitch-black sociopolitical satire, a brainless action flick, and a horror movie. If the filmmakers had stuck with any one of those, or maybe even two of the three, they might have been able to pull that off. But trying to take on all three at once resulted in something that is sadly less than the sum of its parts. What we’re left with is something that’s far more notable for its novel ideas and its bold approach to huge issues, rather than its forgettable action scenes, bland scares, and cellophane characters. Though the movie is a fantastic showcase for Frank Grillo (here playing the senator’s chief bodyguard), no doubt about that.
I was very deeply impressed with how such a boneheaded premise could be used to deliver so much incisive social commentary. But the rest of the film around that commentary leaves me with very little worth recommending.