The most curious arc of any cinematic franchise must be that of the Blumhouse horror series The Purge. It began its life as a absolutely middling home-invasion thriller with a more interesting world flickering at its surface. As the franchise has gone, it’s slowly expanded itself into the margins of that original world and finally started to make something of an attempt to live up to its socially critical science fiction premise. It just needed the spark to make it really hit home.
That spark, it turns out, is the growing anger and resentment and general feeling that there’s something fundamentally broken in this country now. The Purge: Election Year has finally started to live up to the idea that a film about Americans deciding to turn on each other and kill rampantly one night a year might be able to say something about the society it’s set in.
It’s election year (hey!) and there’s finally a reformer coming to the America that the ruling party, the New Founding Fathers of America, have created. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who lost her entire family to a madman on Purge night 18 years before, is within spitting distance of being elected President on a platform of ending the Purge, an annual holiday where all crime is made legal for one evening.
The NFFA cannot, of course, abide by that. On Purge Night, they make an attempt on her life, foiled by her head of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). This attempt plunges them into the depths of Purge Night and into the path of Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a shopowner who makes his best attempt to defend his store and who takes up the cause of defending the Senator and striking back against the plans of the NFFA.
This is an angry fucking movie. Seriously. This is a movie deeply pissed off at American society and it really doesn’t care who knows it. Does it mean it loses some subtlety? Of course, but I almost think subtlety would have harmed this movie.
The intention isn’t to be a smart satire, it’s a big fucking crowd pleaser and it’s tapping into something far more primal than our brains and what we think about what’s going on. It’s what we feel. Writer and director Joe DeMarco set up his enemies, a group of old white men clothing themselves in false religion and American history. He also set up his heroes, reformers and the lower-income folks getting fucked over by the wealthy and powerful. He then makes thrills in having his heroes defeat his villains, turning the violence they beg for back onto them.
Is it hypocritical? Probably. As thrilling as The Purge: Election Year can be (and the audience I saw it with was loving every minute of it), it’s a film that works on a gut level and a gut level alone. It’s not just the smart-ass minutia of the Purge that’s a problem, that stuff doesn’t interest me.
It’s some fundamental contradictions of action movie storytelling in a movie with this social satire premise. It’s a film that absolutely wants to criticize a country for violence and preach that killing your enemies is not the way to win…in a film where the thrills of killing are given an impressively exciting sheen. The people who die are unabashed villains, nazis and murderous teenagers and the white dudes who subjugated the country under their rule. There’s no grayness, no understanding.
It doesn’t help that you have Frank Grillo as your action lead. Let’s be frank here, no one looks better kicking ass than Frank Grillo. He’s the kind of guy who makes ass-kicking look even more kick-ass. Even playing a generic tough guy, no one brings the hurt quite like he does, which again, makes the fundamental
But again, that’s just getting back into the idea that this may not be a movie to look at for cleverness. This is not a movie about cleverness or subtlety. It’s something big and clumsy, really clumsy. The storytelling can be best described overall as someone trying to carry a whole stack of books in their arms up a flight of stairs. The books keep dropping and getting shifted out of the stack and they spill all over the place and maybe half of them actually make it up to the top in first go.
That doesn’t mean it’s not kind of thrilling. It really is. There’s something satisfying about getting to indulge in this much anger for a period of time, and even more entertaining the possibility that the country can change through gray-area heroism. The Purge: Election Year resembles the better action films of John Carpenter, like Escape from New York or They Live! There’s a visceral thrill to it all, and something clever at its core.
If The Purge: Election Year was blessed with John Carpenter’s brains, heart, or control, we might have a classic of this year. But as it stands, it’s fine enough for a Saturday to indulge in that resentment you’re starting to feel against the powers that be.