I’ll say this about the Purge movies; they’re getting better. In James DeMonaco’s futurist dystopia trilogy, positing a future United States of America in which the economy booms due to a nasty annual bloodletting, the storytelling and basic filmmaking chops have clearly improved, film by film. And this third film, Election Year, is the first film to really explore seriously the ramifications of the films’ premise. In broad outline, the idea behind the Purge movies have become increasingly plausible. In detail, of course, they’re silly action movies. So how well do they speak to our day?
Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir had a lot of fun with this kind of analysis, writing that there are two versions of an election year available:
One of them is a ludicrous and idiotic narrative about race and class in America, full of unbelievable characters and implausible plot twists, anchored in the naïve belief that popular revolt through the ballot box can bring down a corrupt oligarchy. The other one is a movie.
Yes, very funny. I would put it this way: for the Purge movies to really work, we’d have to find the premise sufficiently plausible that it sends a little chill down our collective spines. Parallels to our reality would have to really resonate, so much that we’d nod a bit in recognition. So, here’s the basic Purge idea. What do you think?
At some point in the future, at a moment of national crisis, a conservative party called the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA), establishes a new holiday, the Purge. For twelve hours, during the Purge, everything goes, with no legal penalties for any act by anyone. Including murder. From 7-7 some night, roving gangs, wearing garish costumes and masks, just randomly go around killing people. During the Purge, no emergency services are available; no cops, no EMTs, no ambulances.
As a result of the Purge, the US economy has boomed. Unemployment is essentially non-existent; inflation unheard of, profits are high. This is, the movie suggests, because the government doesn’t have to spend much on welfare, or health care, or food stamps. There just aren’t any excess people. Welfare recipients are, uh, culled annually, like English football relegation, only lethal. Rich people, of course, can afford really tight security systems, and are tend not to be victims of the Purge. Poor people are on their own.
This whole thing has a racial component, especially in the third movie. We see various NFFA leadership meetings, concluding with a religious rite scene, set in a cathedral, in which a succession of poor victims are ritually sacrificed by NFFA leadership. The NFFA consists entirely of older white people. Meanwhile, a multi-ethnic coalition opposes the NFFA. Led by a Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a blonde white woman, who is running for President (and might win, if she can just take Florida). Hillary Clinton? Kinda sorta maybe?
There’s another group out there, an underground revolutionary group, that sets up an emergency ward for the wounded, and is led by a charismatic gangster, Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Only Bishop’s done with conventional politics and do-gooding. He’s got a plan, to assassinate the entire NFFA leadership. And Senator Roan wishes he wouldn’t. She thinks she can win the election fair and square.
Of course, that’s all just background. The actual plot of the movie has to do with Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), head of Roan’s security team, and his efforts to protect her from an assassination attempt by, essentially, the entire US government. They’re joined by a convenience store owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), who is determined to protect his store from a nasty girl gang of murderous teens wearing prom dresses and Catholic school uniforms, armed with AR-15s. Joe, and his one employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), an immigrant from Mexico (with, apparently, mad sniper skills), save Leo and Charlie when they’re set upon by a group of German tourists, Purging having apparently become Euro-chic. Joe and Marcos also have a friend, Laney (Betty Gabriel), who spends the Purge riding around in an armored van rescuing people in need. So Laney, Joe and Marcos join Leo and the Senator, and try to fend off mercenaries hired by American rich people conservatives. That’s the plot. It’s still basically an action movie.
So how plausible is it? Not very. I mean, come on. American conservatives, in my experience, tend to believe in a bootstraps narrative, in which America is defined as the place where anyone with sufficient gumption can be successful. Republicans want to lift poor people, not, you know, murder them.
But let’s suppose that high welfare rolls really were what was holding our economy back. Let’s suppose that high social spending on a parasite class really was a major drag on the economy. (Not true, actually, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the premise). Could we really solve that problem by just shooting the bottom five percent every year? Or, you know, essentially deputizing all our sociopaths?
Probably not, no. And yet, here’s the paradox of this movie; it starts with this appalling premise. And the movie tells us, repeatedly, that the idea of the Purge is desperately immoral. And heroic Senator Roan campaigns on the idea that the Purge is violent and sick and needs to go away. And all the more sympathetic characters in the movie are all in agreement about how awful the Purge is.
And yet, the movie is also built on the idea that the Purge does, in fact, work. We see a debate between Senator Roan and her NFFA opponent, and when he asks her what she proposes (“more welfare spending?” he sneers), she doesn’t have an answer. In fact, the movie advances an even-more-contemptible idea–that poor people are nothing but a drag on the economy. A net minus for any advanced nation.
In a way, the Purge movies, when they’re not distracting us with firefights, are sort like Swift’s A Modest Proposal. An insane idea, presented tongue-in-cheek, to force us to confront our own prejudices. Only the Purge movies don’t just toss this awful, murderous idea out there. They build a narrative around the idea that the awful, murderous idea is also economically sound.
So, at first, I thought this series, for all the bloodshed it depicts, did at least have its heart in the right place. Now I’m less sure. I can at least say this. In our own time of scary, scary politics, we do have a blonde woman to vote for. At least there’s that.