It’s hard to paint The Purge: Election Year as anything but a hit. Having grossed over $45 million in just five days on a $10 million budget, it stands to be one of 2016’s most profitable investments for Universal studios. The action-horror sequel outgrossed a new Steven Spielberg project, The BFG, and the sequel to Independence Day over Independence Day weekend. America has spoken—they’re ready to Purge.
For those outside the pop culture bubble, The Purge is a thriller franchise that paints a dark future for America—one includes the annual Purge. For 12 hours a year, all crime is legal, allowing people to “purge” the hate and anger from their systems. Despite a bland first film, this crime spree has exploded in popularity. The Purge: Anarchy took the action to the streets, which put the chaos on full display. The resulting parade of violence is engrossing, dusted with a healthy serving of social commentary. Anarchy is an action film shot from the victim’s perspective, resulting in a unique horror blend.
With Election Year, the world of The Purge looks to politics. Senator Charlie Roan is a fresh upstart running a presidential campaign that seeks to end the annual tradition. She argues that the slaughter is little more than a profit making scheme to kill off the poor, thus cutting costs on welfare. Her message resonates with the affected and enrages those with power. On the last Purge before election night, a betrayal leaves the senator out on the street with her trusted head of security (played by Frank Grillo, reprising his role from Anarchy). The audience follows them on this deadly night, as they seek to survive–and end–the Purge. Yet at this premise lies an awkward truth. The narrative says the audience should be rooting for the Purge to end. If that’s the case, would we really be flocking to the theater to watch it on display?
Director James DeMarco’s vision for this slaughter is a carnival of horrors, with citizens treating the event like a combination of Marti Gras and the worst riot known to society. Teenagers prowl the streets with AK-47s, dressed like punk-rock ballerinas. International “murder tourists” don masks of the founding fathers, peppered with blood. The action is a constant and happens in visceral detail. DeMonaco has an eye for subtle panning shots that detail combat in 360 degrees, reminding us that danger could come out of every corner. More so than in either previous Purge films, our heroes are willing to take up arms and defend themselves against attackers. Gun combat is tremendously fun and frantic, flowing with smooth choreography and smart framing. Carnage is why we come to The Purge. It’s the center of every bit of marketing and the reason these movies are hits.
Typically, I’d give an action movie a pass for this sort of tonal disconnect–it’s something to be expected from the genre. Yet Election Year is a film so blatantly political it’s impossible to avoid holding it to a higher standard. The film’s marketing campaign has heavily leveraged the looming public disarray of the Trump campaign, even boasting the hoisted tagline “Keep America Great.” These real world connections extend into the plot, which plays heavily with social and racial divides amongst Americans. These ties push The Purge into parable territory. It’s the story of an America that may someday be a reality, pushing past our existing social boundaries. But when a parable glamorizes the same violence that it calls to end, doesn’t that render the parable inert? Perhaps the contradiction of The Purge is a reflection of something deeper in American politics.
The 2016 election has been the most viewed in history. Primary debates drew the sort of TV ratings typically reserved for major sporting events. Candidate rallies on both sides of the spectrum have seen massive protests, aggressive online discourse and tribalism that divides us without rational thought. It’s destructive, evil and actively degrading our country as we know it.
Yet it’s also entertaining as all hell.
We are creatures of controversy, eager to post our latest perspective on this hour’s outrage. Our better judgment tells us not to engage with online trolls or drag our personal beliefs out into the open. Yet some primal desire for conflict keeps us in the loop. We focus on what makes us angry, upset, or offended–because in a world of constant stimulation, feeling content is as good as being dead. This misplaced passion is wrong, though it feels so perfect. Sometimes we try to rise above it, only to find ourselves reveling in anger at the system in which we remain trapped. There’s no escaping the contradiction.
There’s no escaping The Purge.
You can follow Chris Berg on Twitter, @ChrisBerg25