The Purge films are an odd entry in the horror canon. As brutal as they are coy, as mindlessly fun as they are bleakly depressing, these films — including the newest installment of the franchise, The Purge: Election Year — attempt to weave a dark, urgent morality play around the story of a dystopian America that allows its citizens to enact terrifying violence on each other for one night each year, known as Purge Night.
But if the films’ take on US politics is a refreshing look at a society on the brink of self-destruction, its gleeful enjoyment of all that chaos ultimately turns the concept of "morality" into a giant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
As set forth by writer-director James DeMonaco, who has helmed all three films so far, the franchise has frequently hopped between horror concepts. The first movie was a fairly straightforward home invasion scenario with dystopian overtones. The second movie, The Purge: Anarchy, took us on an entirely different adventure with all new characters who seemed largely assembled to give us a tour of the wider dystopian universe DeMonaco was constructing.
The third Purge, however, is staking an obvious claim to the kind of deep social commentary that other dystopian narratives like The Hunger Games have more thoroughly canvassed. If the first and second films limited themselves to purely socioeconomic commentary, Election Year takes direct aim at politics, racial injustice, and the subject that so far has only lingered at the edges of the franchise’s premise: gun control.
But there’s one major problem — albeit one that may not bother all of the series’ many fans: The Purge takes far too much glee in presenting its violence like a beautiful fever dream, undermining and muddling its solemn political messages at every possible turn.
The Purge: Election Year raises the stakes for old and new characters alike
The Purge: Election Year opens with a harrowing scene that calls back to the plot of the first Purge film, with a family being tortured by a random home invader on Purge Night. Eighteen years later, the lone survivor of that encounter, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), is a US senator and a strong independent candidate for president.
Roan has dedicated her life to ending the Purge, but as we soon learn, to win the presidential election she’ll have to face off against the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) — the mysterious organization from the two previous films now revealed to be a government "regime" that has ruled the country for at least two decades.
Previous installments of The Purge have shown citizens revering the NFFA without ever explaining who they are or how they came to power; The Purge: Election Year not only gives them faces but ties the group explicitly to the National Rifle Association and fundamentalist Christianity, as well as to a host of militarized extremist subcultures. When Roan is inevitably betrayed by her security staff and attacked on Purge Night, the assembled army that pursues her flaunts symbols of numerous white power movements: Confederate flags, swastikas, and the red cross of the Aryan nation are all on display.
Fortunately for Roan, she has a secret weapon Purge fans have already met: Leo Jones, the hero of the second film, played once more with a compelling mix of military focus and weary humanity by Frank Grillo. In Anarchy, Jones was an off-duty cop who seemed to have a nebulous background as a super soldier. Now, a few years after the events of the second film, Roan has appointed him the head of her security detail, just in time for him to perform even more Purge Night feats, like getting Roan out of her house when it falls under attack and keeping her safe as they attempt to find help on the dangerous DC streets.
They find that help in Joe and Marcos, a convenience store owner and his employee, who rescue them and become their protectors for the night, despite the risk it entails to Joe’s livelihood. Then a third savior arrives in the form of Laney Rucker, a stone-cold Good Samaritan — played to grim-faced perfection by Betty Gabriel — who rescues the injured and helpless of Purge Night and delivers them to an underground triage center.
At first this triage center, which is primarily serving as a shelter for the homeless who remain the Purge’s primary victims, appears to be a safe haven. But the group of people running the place, led by Edwin Hodge in a role elevated from the second film, prove to be militant left-wing protesters who are planning a Purge Night attack of their own.
The film underscores the urgency of the 2016 election
The Purge: Anarchy was basically a really long episode of The Walking Dead with mask-wearing renegades instead of zombies: Sure, the dystopian elements were there, but the movie was mostly an excuse for people to run around shooting at each other. As Mallory Ortberg said in her hilarious review, "The Purge II: Anarchy is a perfect movie for people who want to see a bunch of people try to murder each other for no good reason. Get busy purgin’ or get busy dying."
Election Year, however, couldn’t feel more topical or timely. The film’s politics are extremely straightforward: Gun rights advocates, fundamentalist religious leaders, and the nation’s wealthy have combined their respective agendas to form a dogma of "Purge and Purify" that simultaneously makes gun ownership a necessity, lines the pockets of the rich, and eradicates the poor.
With gun-wielding characters repeatedly declaring that it is their "God-given right to purge" but also that such a right was "granted by the New Founding Fathers," the interchangeability of gods and men — whoever allows you to feel entitled to use a firearm — is clear. While it might seem over the top to imagine that these forces could so seamlessly converge, it’s really not that far-fetched. Gun rights advocacy is already covered by Christian teachings in conservative areas of the country, and has been for decades.
Again and again, the instigators and upholders of Purge Night are explicitly associated, as they have been in earlier installments of the franchise, with powerful, rich white men. In addition to the constant emphasis in the franchise’s previous films that the Purge hurts the poor and other marginalized groups, the new film directly connects Roan’s political supporters to the Black Lives Matter movement’s themes of protest and rebellion. We briefly see a "Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!" poster in one scene, and all of the left-wing militant members we meet from the underground anti-Purge movement that’s plotting to attack the government are men of color.
But it also constantly undermines its own message
There are two huge problems with Election Year’s take on violence. The first is that even though the entire franchise has posited that Purge Night is a war on the poor and the marginalized — especially people of color — when push comes to shove, the film’s narrative renders these people as disposable as the government powers it’s trying to depose.
Despite being packed with violence and gun-fueled murder, all of which is depicted as necessary for our heroes to survive and resist the ruling NFFA, Election Year only values violence as a tool of resistance as long as it helps white people. The instant that the rebellion by the film’s men of color threatens the promise of a peaceful ascent to power that accompanies Sen. Roan’s presidential bid, Election Year suddenly can’t stop reminding us that violent action against the powerful elite is Bad.
Soon enough, those men of color are capitulating to this idea and throwing themselves in front of bullets to protect Roan. In other words, the story is ostensibly about how wrong it is that society views black people as disposable, yet it presents black people as disposable.
The other huge problem is that, far more than in the first two Purge movies, purging looks fantastic. This is partly due to the way the purge sequences are filmed — at a dreamy distance, which makes them seem like an ecstasy-fueled cross between a Kubrickian orgy and a Point Break reenactment. Onscreen, Purge Night looks like one hell of a rave party.
But it’s mostly due to the wonders of newcomer Brittany Mirabile, who plays a gleefully, beautifully eager teen desperate to bathe in the blood of anyone who tells her no. Though the character is short-lived, she is the real soul of the entire Purge franchise — and though the audience cheers when she’s mowed down by the avenging angel of Gabriel’s character in her triage van, we also understand that we gave her exactly what she wanted.
The audience at my screening of Election Year cheered uproariously at every act of violence committed by our heroes and seemed totally unfazed at every subsequent death incurred, usually by a black man sacrificing himself for a blond white woman.
Violence in Election Year is a rollicking success; the real-life audience is just as hungry for it as the Purgers themselves. By the time a "Purge Mass" is committed — with two men of the cloth rapturously locked in an erotic embrace as they mutually stab a homeless man to death, all while enthralled rich white people look on — there’s an eerie Orwellian symmetry between the audience onscreen and the audience offscreen.
This is most likely what DeMonaco was counting on; after all, he has systematically expanded the idea of Purge Night to be an ever-more-direct commentary on the current political climate. But ultimately, if we are to take Election Year at face value, it’s way too much fun to be a successful takedown of contemporary politics. Among the pantheon of dystopian genre films, it lacks either the darkly satirical guiltlessness of Battle Royale or the bleak but thorough societal deconstruction of The Hunger Games.
In landing somewhere in between, The Purge: Election Year winds up being what is perhaps the most unerring take on US politics we’ve seen yet this year. But in celebrating the violence it purports to deplore, it ultimately winds up doing exactly what we hope this year’s election won’t: perpetuating the sins it exists to defeat.