The Purge: Election Year (dir. James DeMonaco)

Posted: July 7, 2016 in Uncategorized

*Warning: Massive Spoilers within*

Three films in, and “The Purge” franchise has accomplished an astounding feat: the films have gotten smarter and better as they have gone on. From the first film, where an interesting and outlandish concept was used as the backdrop for a basic home-invasion horror film, we now have “Election Year”, an angry satirical swipe at the modern American political arena that takes aim at economic inequality, racial justice, guns, and religion by making a grotesque parody of everything going on right now. A dystopian America where people can get away with murder one day a year isn’t that odd when we consider how many police officers have gotten away without so much as an indictment for killing unarmed, non-threatening civilians, is it? That’s one of the questions the film wants you to ask as you watch it. By heightening reality by about 10 degrees, we have to reflect on not how different the world of these films is, but rather how similar.

It’s the 25th anniversary of the Purge, the one night of the year where all crime is legal. Yes, this concept creates a great deal of logic holes, from whether civil crimes and torts are also granted immunity, to why murder is the thing most people jump to instead of financial crime, to how difficult it would be to determine time of death on a body is someone was killed just before or just after the purge was in effect.  You or I can both probably come up with explanations for all of the holes that fit within the framework of the universe created by these films (this is often a very fun conversation for fans) but the fact that the films don’t try to answer some of these questions in the films themselves is probably why some people can’t enjoy the films. Then again, it’d be hard to answer these questions without massively awkward info dumps.

Anyway, the 25th anniversary of the Purge coincides with an election year. It’s partly surprising that this version of America has elections, as the previous films have indicated that the country is basically run by a mysterious cadre of people known as the New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA as this film now calls them. This new film elaborates that they are a political party that apparently dominates most political power within the country. So, much like many authoritarian states in our real world, they allow token minority parties to run and maybe win a seat or two hear or there, but one-party controls most of the action.  Why would a party with this much power even allow elections? Perhaps because they want their citizens to have the illusion of power, freedom, and democracy, and because they are so assured of their stranglehold on power that elections are really of no concern to them.  This is an attitude held by many people who choose not to vote in the United States. We have TWO parties which give us the illusion of choice, and aside from different ideological changes with happen on the margins, large change doesn’t appear very possible within the two-party American system when large donors and power brokers interests run the show. Sp yes, the film just gives us an extreme version of what many disenfranchised people feel about out society right now (especially this year, with Hillary vs. Trump, though this film was filmed and completed before the filmmakers could have known that).

The presidential contest this year appears to be close. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is an Independent Senator who is running on an almost exclusively anti-Purge platform. Year ago, her family was held hostage on Purge night and she was the only survivor. The Purge has become very unpopular now that knowledge has been disseminated to the masses that is exists largely to line the pockets of the NRA (the Purge creates a world where everyone really DOES have to own a gun to be safe, unlike the real world where they only want everyone to THINK that’s the case…can you imagine how much money gun manufacturers would make in a Purge world?), insurance companies, and other interest groups. More poor people die in the Purge, and that means less government money spent on social services like welfare, housing, Social Security, healthcare, unemployment, and more. It solves every Conservative’s problems: they hate poor people, and hate government spending. If those poor people happen to be minorities, why that’s even better. The Purge is an extended metaphor for any and all Conservative-backed budget proposals since the Reagan era. In the real world the poor suffer, get sick, and die every day because of policies Conservatives want and Democrats are to spineless or corrupt to fight against. In “The Purge” movies, they just cut through the bullshit and let poor people get tortured and murdered.

Roan’s opponent is a minister, because why be subtle in a movie like this? He’s Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), a token candidate for the NFFA, who we see with other members, some higher ranking, in a scene where many old white men (and one or two older white women) swear profusely, rail against the poor, and plot to take out Roan. While I doubt the evil Capitalists that run American politics and the economy are this explicit, vulgar, and monolithically white in real life, this works as satire because this is pretty much the image we all conjure up when we imagine what they do in private. All that’s missing is them raising their glasses and toasting “to evil”.  Still, we do get to see new flags and iconography associated with the NFFA in the film, and they all call to mind Christian-based Fascist movements of the post WWII-era.  With Roan and Owens as opponents, this often feels like a female Bernie Sanders running against a less weird-looking Ted Cruz.

The plan the NFFA has to take out Roan is pretty simple. In the previous films, people with a “level 10” government position or higher are exempt from having crimes committed against them in the Purge. Of course, the rich and powerful don’t want the rules that apply to everyone else to apply to themselves. (There also rules against certain explosive weapons so that major infrastructure isn’t too damaged, but this new film leaves that out to, either for time or because they forgot). In this film, the NFFA, in the guise of reform to please the masses and appear more egalitarian, eliminate that exemption, which also conveniently means a pesky female Senator running for President can be killed.

Luckily, Roan has the Secret Service protection of Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who we met in the last film as grieving father who almost killed the drunk driver that killed his son, but instead saved a handful of people and had a change of hear about the Purge. He shares Roan’s hatred of the night, and will do anything to protect her. This is good because, well, the rest of the Secret Service is in bed with the NFFA, and before you know it, the Secret Service has outsourced assassination of Roan to a paramilitary militia of heavily tattooed White Supremacists.  These aren’t the fairly realistic racists from “Green Room”, but rather ones SO RACIST, they “White Power” patches on their camo, along with Confederate Flag patches, Swastikas, and Iron Crosses. They’ve gone full racism.  I suppose this is a comment on how rich Conservatives are willing to be uncomfortable allies with the seedier corners of the right-wing political spectrum when it suits their needs. Again, this movie was written and filmed BEFORE Trump became the nominee (though filmed three months AFTER he announced his candidacy).

While this main story is going on, we also get a parallel story which will eventually meet up with Roan and Leo.  A small business owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) has his Purge insurance (that’s a special, very profitable thing now) jacked up the day before the Purge. Because of this, he decides to stay at his store on Purge night to defend it from looters. He’s helped by his legal Mexican immigrant employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Sora). Why anyone still wants to become an American citizen when the Purge is a policy must speak to how terrible it is to live in certain parts of Mexico.  After all, if your country is a violent place, being afraid one day a year is better than being afraid every moment of every day. Marcos is a good man and he clearly exists in the film to make us feel empathy for immigrants (the film tells us Marcos was a citizen for two years but lived in the U.S. for seven, so he was likely illegal for some of that time).  Marcos is loyal, smart, and hardworking. Suck on that, Trump!  Anyway, just before the Purge, two girls dressed in schoolgirl outfits (because we missed the ridiculous schoolgirl outfit that Ethan Hawke’s daughter wore in the first film and the second film didn’t have ANY schoolgirl outfits at all!) try to steal a candy bar from the store. They are stopped by Dixon’s friend Laney (Betty Gabriel), who used to be a tough female gang member. One of the girls, Kimmy (Brittany Mirabile), vows to come back and mess up the store, though.

She makes good on her word, as she and her friends drive to the store in a car covered in X-Mas lights (this looks cool, but must have taken a long time…and how are they plugged in?) and attempt to break in using power saws. On a night where all crime is legal, why are they spending there time trying to fuck up this one convenience store? This is likely the filmmakers’ comment on riots like Ferguson. Instead of going after the assholes really oppressing you (like the NFFA in this world) or even targeting rich neighborhoods and suburbs, they see fit to destroy businesses in their own communities for stupid reasons. Clearly the filmmakers are trying to tell rioters that such behavior doesn’t help them with the macro or micro reasons they are kept down, and also contributes to racist thinking regarding their intelligence and civility.  This can be contrasted to the film’s other depiction of a violent and largely African-American resistance movement. Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) leads a group this part Black Lives Matter and part Black Panthers. The film tells us they take measures to assassinate NFFA members and sympathizers on previous Purge nights that weren’t protected by the previously enforced level 10 immunity. In addition to those terrorist actions, they also provide hospital services to those injured on Purge night, staffed with volunteer doctors and nurses (emergency services are suspended during the Purge), and some volunteers, like Laney, drive ambulances throughout the community on Purge night. The film shows us that the ambulances are largely left alone, as are people who go through the streets picking up dead bodies as a kind of trash collection service. “Keep Washington Clean” a man says with a bullhorn from the collection truck. This is a comment how poor, mainly minority communities are left to fend for themselves and have to stick together when the powers that be abandon them.  Washington D.C., a city with a large Black and poor community surrounding a center filled with the rich and powerful was the perfect setting for this film.  In any event, the film seems to be arguing that people upset with the status quo need to be a lot less like Kimmy (selfish, stupid, no grasp of the big picture, commits violence against their own) and a lot more like Dante Bishop’s group…to a point (I’ll get to that in a bit).

It goes without saying that Senator Roan and Leo end up on the streets during the Purge after escaping an assassination attempt. Oddly enough, the first group of crazies that happen upon them are tourists from Europe and South Africa who have flown to the U.S. to participate in the Purge as “murder tourists”. One of the main complaints I hear of the “Purge” films is why people don’t just leave the country for when the Purge takes place. My general hypothesis has been that either the United States relies on the inflamed sense of patriotism to shame those who don’t do their patriotic duty to participate (remember how those who questioned the government’s actions were ridiculed and shamed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11?) or that the Government closed their borders to travel in the immediate run up to the Purge. This film clearly proves the latter hypothesis wrong. I’m guessing people stay much like Dixon does to protect their property, or simply because not everyone has the means to just pick up and travel out of the country once a year to avoid being killed. Other countries may also not be too happy about an influx of tourists and/or immigrants once a year in March given the xenophobia that exists about outsiders in our real world right now. This murder tourist element is an odd one, as it at first seems to indicate a vindication of xenophobia, as outsiders travel to the United States to exploit their “freedom” to Purge. However, when you consider where the film tells is they are from (South Africa really stands out, being the country that was formally under racial apartheid, and the South African purger speaks Afrikaans while wearing a George Washington mask).  I think this is more of a comment on how the rest of the world views America as a particularly violent culture, even though the previous histories of other countries (like South Africa and European powers like France and England) have a lot more blood on their hands due to their longer histories of colonialism and imperialism. I think the film is saying that America may be uniquely violent right now to it’s own people, but these other countries have been exceptionally violent to OTHER countries in the past (and perhaps now).

Dixon and Marcos save Roan and Leo from the murder tourists, Kimmy and the Black-on-Black-Crime-Teenagers are taken out by Laney, and soon they all end up at Bishop’s underground hospital safe zone.  There, we find out that the Bishop group is planning to assassinate Minister Owens. See, the NFFA on Purge Night has a midnight Purge mass in a church. That’s right, we’re finally getting an attack on Christianity in a Purge movie. Bishop’s people want the freedom of the new Purge allowing the killing of government officials to take out all of the main D.C. NFFA players, including presidential candidate Owens. Roan attempts to talk him out of it, saying killing Owens will only make him a martyr and ensure the NFFA wins the election. Basically, it’s as if Bernie Sanders tried to tell Fred Hampton or Che Guevara to trust in the system. It’s a weird message for a film that takes such joy in violence against the evil to have this reform over revolution stance. Granted, the argument that Owens being killed would make him a martyr and rally the public behind the NFFA is probably correct. Much as killing certain terrorists rallies people to join terrorists groups (not as much as killing innocent civilians with drone bombings, though) it stands to reason that the public would see the violent murder of Owens by a group claiming they want to end a night of violent murder would instead prove the necessity of such a night to keep people safe from unreleased violent impulses. The fear of crime is such that in our real world commercials for security systems and doorbells with cameras in them are aimed at people in affluent suburbs who have little risk in suffering a break in. Plus, you know, there’d be the basic hypocrisy of Bishop’s group. This is sort of pointed out when the “war room” of sorts in Bishop’s HQ has a sign that says “Stop Class Warfare” or “End Class Warfare” (I forget which) even though they are actively engaging in a class war, albeit for the correct side.

Eventually, Roan is successful kidnapped by the neo-Nazis and taken to the church where the NFFA is having their service, which consists of Owens talking about how the Purge helps them be free of guilt from their sinful thoughts of anger and hate much like Jesus dyed on the cross for their sins. Basically, instead of flagellating themselves like the albino in “The Da Vinci Code” these Christians hurt others to feel better about how un-Christian (in the follow-all-the-good-Jesus-teaching-and-none-of-the-bad-ones way that we think of as “being Christian” when we condemn shitty Christians for being assholes) their thoughts and actions are. I think they’re wrongfully comparing themselves to Jesus when they should be comparing themselves to Pontius Pilot, but whatever. These people are just as stupid about religions as real life religious people are. After the little speech, it’s made clear that they going to kill a long series of drug addicts and hobos. As Christ would.  But, they’re also going to have a murder orgy where they all jointly kill Roan. I have to admit, seeing a bunch of rich white people sitting in a church chanting “Purge and Purify” while Fascist-looking flags with their logo adorns the church is pretty much how I view Christianity in general, and I smiled wide and proud to see such a blatantly “fuck the Religious Right” scene in a movie. It is so over the top and absurd that I wanted to kiss the movie on the forehead. When the film tells us the murder weapons were all washed in holy water prior to the mass, I had to stop myself from clapping in the theater.

Without going to much into the third act machinations, I’ll say that most of our main characters survive, and the election happens (in this universe, it takes place in May instead of November, for some reason).  Here’s the thing: this film indicates that a President could take executive action to stop the Purge. However, previous films either stated or implied that the Purge was enacted following a Constitutional Amendment. A President cannot undo a Constitutional Amendment. Only another Amendment, passed by 2/3rds majorities in both houses of Congress, and then ratified by 2/3rds of the states, can repeal an Amendment. Even if Roan becomes President, it seems like the NFFA would still control most of the seats in the U.S. government, unless down ticket races running on an end-the-Purge ballot also got swept into office nationwide. A minor quibble from a political geek.

I’ve largely focused on the film’s politics because, well, the film is all politics. The film shares many of my own politics and by touching on issues like economic inequality, race relations, the struggles of being poor in an inner-city, immigration, colonialism, working within the system vs. a revolution on the system, it proves itself to be angrier and smarter than most films released by a major studio in movie theaters in this, or any other year outside of the documentary genre. Horror films used to be very political, from “last House on the Left” commenting on Vietnam in the 70s, to “The People Under The Stars” commenting and “They Live” commenting on the Reagan 80s, all the way to the 2000s “Hostel” movies commenting on the Bush years and American nationalism and ethnocentricity in a post 9/11 world. That streak has seemingly disappeared as studio horror moves to PG-13 jump scare garbage, found footage, reboots, and supernatural haunting movies. While “The Purge: Election Year” isn’t scary (it’s too funny and idea-heavy for that), it shows that, much like it’s sister genre sci-fi, horror as a genre can disarm people by having them easily dismiss it as disposable entertainment, and thus is perfectly situated to deliver a message to people. “Election Year” isn’t some dystopian warning about what America would look like under a President Trump, it’s a warning that this is what America already is, regardless of who wins the next election. People being murdered with no consequences for the killers, the rich and powerful pulling the strings, poor minorities in urban environments being abandoned by the powers that be (Flint) and having to fend for themselves, the idiocy of rioting and attacking ones own community and more are all issues happening right now. The truth about our world is that we are living in the Purge, every single day. The argument of our time is whether we need to be Charlie Roans or Dante Bishops.

There’s a funny little moment when, upon the election of Roan, we hear a voiceover say supporters of the NFFA are rioting in the streets. It’s a nice little “fuck you, privileged white people, you’d do this to if something mattered to you enough.”  Aside from the politics, I hate the ridiculous glasses they make Elizabeth Mitchell wear. They’re the type of glasses they put on porn stars when they have to play scientists or something before the anal begins. Some of the acting is less than ideal. The horror fan in me wishes some of the kills were more inventive and less gun-heavy (these films are more action movie sometimes than horror).  Otherwise, my complaints with the film are few. “The Purge: Election Year” does everything I want a Purge movie to do, short of finding an entertaining way to close the various logic problems with its premise. It’s a funny, angry, violent political cartoon turned motion picture, with enough ideas in it to spawn 10 films, let alone one. It’s love of violence somewhat undercuts its general message (unless it wants to come clean and say it favors violent revolution, which no American film from a major studio would likely dare to do…even “Fight Club” and “Mr. Robot” don’t go that far) but the genre demands violence.  I’m not going to lie. This isn’t high art. There aren’t many impressive shots of directorial flourishes that make this highly visually stimulating.  Most of the characters are one or two dimensional at best. The bottom line is that I don’t care about that. The movie exists to send a satirical message, one that comes through loud and clear, and that I liked hearing and enjoyed this form of delivery. A-




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