The most egregious sin a movie can commit is being boring. No matter how interesting a concept is if the nuts and bolts don’t work, if the mechanics fail, then nothing you have to say really matters. In fact, it may even hurt your cause. If there’s no clarity, if everything is so broad that it borders on ephemeral parody, then you’re in danger of obfusticating your point so much that it ceases to have the intended effect. Instead of providing a space where a person could be contemplative about American politics, religion, and the ven diagram where those things cross, you’re instead provided with a cartoon that is having an argument that doesn’t exist outside of the most alarmist minds.
I’ve always really dug the concept behind The Purge movies. The films posit a world wherein politics have become an almost formal type of religion. Politicians and the upper to middle class invoke the names of the founding fathers like you might imagine a Catholic calling out to their saints. Then once a year the populace has been invited to participate in The Purge for a period of 12 hours, where pretty much anything goes. The logic behind the event is that if we can act out our inner most evil, then we will be cleansed of our desire for it in our daily life. It’s a simple, straightforward framing device that could work really well if it wasn’t for the absurd and cloying political messaging.
With every movie in this series, the story-tellers have given us a different perspective on The Purge. The first was a basic home invasion movie, showing the plight of a middle-class suburban family. The second took us to the streets and followed some lower-class people and a vengeance-seeking father as the navigate the night. It expands on the concept, as it peeks in on how the upper-class spends the night and is where the final set-piece takes place. It’s widely regarded as the best in the series and, for the most part, I’d agree. It get’s the balance right between gory action flick and political allegory. Yeah, I have some problems with it, but I’ll get to that later.
Now, The Purge: Election Year, has finally come out and if you saw the trailers you’d imagine that this film’s focus would be the political class, but the reality is much more cluttered. Sure, it has some of that, but it plays out mostly like a rehash of the second film. Almost as if they saw how much people liked it – the first film was panned – and decided to double down on the street level action. It made the whole thing feel like a boring retread, as it literally has almost the exact same structure as The Purge: Anarchy.
Hell, even Frank Grillo returns playing the same character, except this time around he’s just an empty approximation of who he played before. He’s just there to be “action-man” and protect the savior, wait, I mean, a candidate for president. The character could have been played by anyone, and by casting him kind of shrinks the film’universe. I get why he’s in the movie, he’s singled out as a fan favorite, but it doesn’t really follow any logic. He has nothing to say, nothing interesting to do, and only exists as a tool. No, not that kind of tool, like a literal tool. Need someone punched in the face? Call Grillo. Need someone to violently defend a rag-tag group? Call Grillo. He’s got fists. He’s got guns. I know, I saw them.
The weirdest character might be Senator Charlie Roan, played by Elizabeth Mitchel. She’s pretty much a Deus Ex Machina, that exists as a symbol of progressive politicians because the movie is so toothless and simple that it has to give you someone from that sect to root for. You could say that it’s an attempt at some form of complexity and maybe that was the purpose, but by basically making her “one of us” it all just rings false. She decided she didn’t like The Purge because her family was executed during one instead of, you know, just thinking that it is fucked up on its own merits. There was no need to personalize it. So rather than being an altruistic monolith, that we could all get behind, she’s just another victim. Yeah, I get that it’s supposed to be some sort of message about how anyone can make a change, but that’s not really true and it just furthers the idea that presidents are monarchs. If it was instead a group of governors, senators and the like that were trying to push anti-purge legislation through the congress and had become targets, then I could have gotten behind it.I really wish that the movie had focused on the political class because everything that’s on offer here has already been covered. I don’t know, I guess maybe they thought that the average movie-goer wouldn’t be able to deal with that kind of thing. Pandering through reductive conversation seems to be the trend these days, anyhow.
I wish I had something to say about the rest of the cast. By the end of the second act, it becomes an ensemble-driven story, but they’re such cardboard cutouts that they defy meaningful description. They’re just more reductive archetypes that exist to make reductive political points. They are there to represent the ideal American citizens, and the melting pot that exists in lower class neighborhoods, but even in this there’s a seismic ton of dishonesty. They face down white European murder-tourists, white supremacist lackeys, and middle-class teeny-boppers. It takes place in an economically downtrodden community but all the villains have been outsourced.Yeah….
To be fair, it does have a kind of new angle on the whole street level Purge stuff. It takes on activism, in a sense. It definitely is invoking modern day social politics and the movements that have sprung up due to things like police brutality. It’s a cheap exploitation of a serious subject but, in all honesty, it’s a genre tradition. The difference and, ultimately, the problem, is that it subtlety continues the narrative that violence is justified when dealing with the violent. In reality, that might have a kernel of truth, but when the top tier bad guys are cartoon stand-ins for Libertarians, things get uncomfortable. Sure, that might be the point and the shock value could even be justified, but to do that you’d have to present a real nuanced take on things, not alarmist rhetoric. It paints such a broad picture of everything, that the “Rah!Rah!” moments feel gross. They’re supposed to make you feel good, as the righteous activists mow down a church full of cartoon characters. Seriously, Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s Judge Doom wouldn’t feel out of place in this universe. It’s that ridiculous, as The Purge faithful gnash and grind their teeth in religious fervor while someone is “sacrificed” to the founders.
The movie never blatantly names the political affiliation of the villains, but it’s pretty obviously an incredibly thinly veiled criticism of Right leaning Libertarians. Like, I said before, it comes off like alarmist rhetoric and seems to pander to liberal guilt and sanctimonious activism. The type of people that feel using a hashtag is a meaningful contribution to the world. I could keep going, there’re hints at the dangers of nationalism, the idea that America is a terrible place that attracts the worst of people from around the globe, but in all those other things that I could bring up the real problem exposes itself. The movie has no real focus. It wants to say something about every hot topic of the past few years but wants none of the responsibility that that entails, so it ends up being shallow and exploitative in a way that I don’t think they intended. It wants to masquerade itself as a high-minded allegory/satire, a thinking person’s gore-fest, but it just ends up being cringe-inducing.
Listen, I’m not trying to imply that this flick is “dangerous” or anything like that. Frankly, it’s not made well enough to do that, but after reading some reviews and listening to a few podcasts about it, some critics are saying that this is representative of “Trump’s America,” and if he wins we should expect this kind of thing. Poor minorities will be hunted, the religious right will take over, immigrants will be rounded up and executed, and on and on and on. They say all of these types of things without a shred of irony. In fact, they were opining its inevitability! Hey, I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but this type of rhetoric is ridiculous. There are many arguments that could be launched against the things he says, but when you have to distort his positions, to the point that they cease being his positions, to win your argument, then you’re just as shitty and reductive as he is. I don’t know, it just bugged the hell out of me. I guess I was just kind of surprised to hear people actually buying into the film’s confused messaging and taking it seriously. But wonders never cease. A movie this dumb has no right being taken so seriously.
Initially, I had no intention of writing about The Purge: Election Year, but I needed something to write about today, so here we are. In all honesty, I know I harped on the reductive, absurdist points of view the movie has but that stuff is beside the point. It’s just a boring retread of the series first sequel, it brings nothing new to the table and ends up feeling so silly and contrived by the end of it all that you’ll feel like you’ve wasted your time. It panders to the “morally superior,” and leaves the more level-headed of us out to dry. The series has never been great, rarely ever rising above mediocre, but this one is just plain old bad.