The Purge: Election Year
Directed by James DeMonaco
Opens July 1
The third installment in this unlikely franchise is a long, vulgar ad for Hillary—with enough violence done to her stand-in to satisfy conservative fetishists who might vicariously enjoy, say, pressing a knife against the former secretary of state’s throat. The inherent of-the-moment relevance of the series’ dystopian 21st century, in which all crime is legal for 12 hours so the country can shake its sillies out, is here slathered on: armed people are killing poor people with state sanction, just like Black Lives Matter says they do; a cabal of powerful men preaching economic renewal may look like Romney Republicans—led by a touch-of-gray DILF with a contoured jaw, the conservative übermensch—but they sure sound like Trump; greedy insurance companies are screwing over small business owners; and an older black man cautions a younger man of color about the dangers of “hope.” You don’t need to unpack much; the filmmakers have generously done most of it for you.
Three or so years ago, James DeMonaco, the sole writer and director of all the Purge movies, clearly saw where this country was headed, and he cleverly created broad outlines that year-by-year could accommodate the specifics to come. Most strikingly in Election Year, a blonde-lady senator (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell), 16 years after the title’s cultural cleansing has begun, is close to winning the presidency. (The character’s name is “Charlie,” suggesting perhaps that at the last minute Larry David could have been cast to play a more Bernie-esque candidate.) She’s running on an anti-Purge platform—her husband and children were killed during the first one—as the Purge has been revealed to be literal class warfare, a way to end the welfare state through government-sponsored violence against the most vulnerable. White dudes in an echoey back room (“the New Founding Fathers”) conspire to have her killed on Purge night; she escapes into the streets with her swarthily sexy bodyguard (Frank Grillo, returning from The Purge: Anarchy), where they join up with some inner-city irregulars who were guarding a bodega but now will help save the senator.
So, yes, there’s old-fashioned Hollywood racism here: a whole bunch of black and brown people are enlisted to sacrifice their lives to protect some white person who’s going to be their savior; the mercenaries are led by a man with some Confederate-flag flair on his uniform. (“Every day in Juarez was like the Purge,” one Mexican immigrant says. Is a fear of the Purge just white privilege?) This is the movie’s loudest bit of Clinton-camp propaganda—that we succeed as a nation when the people, especially those of color, join ranks with the well-to-do establishment white lady. (Did I mention she has blond hair?)
The Purge presents, especially in this chapter, a nightmare vision of America at the endpoint of its present trajectory, its citizens mistaking anger and violence for policy. They even appreciate the consumer spectacle of it: they wear decorated masks, bejewel their weapons, festoon their cars with strings of lights. It’s haute glam from the Mad Max collection. (I was impressed by the people who go to the trouble of renting a guillotine!) But seriously, it shows the country’s worst instincts making its worst fears a reality; there’s a scene in which Russian “murder tourists” victimize American citizens. The Purge makes some citizens strong but the country weak. As one of the more cartoonish characters puts it, “The Purge is about me getting mine and you getting yours”—an ugly ideology gaining traction in the US.
Stephen King, in a passage that reads like a treatment for The Purge, recognizes this sort of self-interested social breakdown as the essence of the genre. “The melodies of the horror tale are simple and repetitive, and they are the melodies of disestablishment and disintegration,” King wrote in his 1981 study of postwar horror, Danse Macabre, “but another paradox is that the ritual out-letting of these emotions seems to bring things back to a more stable and constructive state again… The dream of horror is in itself an out-letting and a lancing… and it may well be that the mass-media dream of horror can sometimes become a nationwide analyst’s couch.” If so, what the country’s saying through DeMarco is distressing.
But we shouldn’t take him so seriously, because while he’s an interesting writer, making me get out my books, he’s an ugly filmmaker. Almost all of the characters are crudely racist and sexist, and his young people are nihilistic, which comes from either cynicism or the lazy assumptions of the Hollywood class about what the peoples more and less powerful than them are like. (This is the first Purge film not set in Los Angeles; it’s set instead in the nation’s capital, where the country’s least powerful literally live in the shadows of its most.) Worse than that, though, is the way he fetishizes the violence, with lots of glistening bodies in slow-motion cut together like car commercials to a heavy-metal soundtrack. There was a whole lot of applause at the test screening I attended, despite “Charlie”’s lip service to not becoming like “them.” DeMonaco may have something to say, but his movies remain too stupid to say it.