On race, class, The Purge: Election Year, and literal-mindedness in place of allegory
The Purge: Election Year Universal Pictures
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Kyle Secor, Betty Gabriel, Raymond J. Barry, Brittany Mirabile, Ethan Phillips, Edwin Hodge and Terry Serpico
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes / 2.35:1
July 1, 2016
(out of four)
Good ideas are wasted on the dumb.
The Purge franchise, now three entries and counting, is a franchise of ideas - which continue to multiply as the series' playing field expands. And at the same rate, it becomes more and more clear that writer/director James DeMonaco doesn't know what to do with those ideas. That, or isn't willing to really dig into them. Either way, he rarely gets farther than simply stating his intentions - rather than examining them. So when he wants to get across that worship of violence is a long-enduring American legacy, he gives us a sequence in which parishioners gather in a church to literally worship sacrificial, violent acts on Purge Night. I mean, there's gotta be a better way to say that.
When he wants to critique a power structure in which the rich and powerful rig the game against the poor, he shows us a government cabinet meeting in which politicians, bathed in sinister lighting, spew bile about their hatred for poor people. (Yes, I'm a tad reticent to criticize such a scene in a time when Donald Trump is an actual finalist for President. But let's face it - even Donald Trump is too on-the-nose for a movie villain.)
When DeMonaco wants to underscore America's traditions of racial exploitation and white supremacy, he gives us a government-contracted paramilitary group made up of soldiers with shaved heads, donning a logo very, very similar to a swastika.
When he wants to examine the moral reasoning of his own premise - to touch on it morally or philosophically - he stages an actual debate between presidential candidates, in which they argue the merits for and against the annual event. To purge or not to purge. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with most of DeMonaco's approach throughout the three films, but this one in particular: the closer he gets to reality, the flimsier his entire conceit seems. Effective satire often works because of how painfully close it gets to the truth. With The Purge: Election Year, the opposite is true; here it's the breaking point.
DeMonaco is doggedly literal-minded even when giving us a premise that is fundamentally allegorical; it requires a logical leap that too close a proximity to reality can't support. The scenario works better when it doesn't exist in any semblance of the real world; previous entries have skirted too close to that line, but this one goes way overboard, to the extent that it's impossible to swallow even the film's basic internal logic. This is a neo-dystopian society that operates under virtually the exact same rules as our current one - with congresspeople and presidential elections and ballot initiatives - with the added wrinkle that there's a day of state-sanctioned murder (not to mention, say, rape and child abuse, although those less "fun" crimes are never mentioned in these movies) every year. And look, if you want to pair near-realism with such a savage anachronism, that could work ... but you'd need someone with a much more caustic, subversive sensibility to pull it off. DeMonaco is not really a satirist - or at least not much of one. His aesthetics are too safe, his commentary too superficial. That he can only envision a world that is nearly identical to our own bespeaks a limited imagination, not a social comment in and of itself.
With his previous installment, 2014's The Purge: Anarchy, he was able to split the difference, giving us a tough urban action thriller that set the politics as a conceptual backdrop that didn't have to do too much heavy lifting. It worked as a sort of throwback, and its success owed plenty to its throwback of a leading man, Frank Grillo, the type of unvarnished, quietly forceful presence that always seems like he just belongs. The filmmakers knew exactly what they had in him, and - after a full cast turnover between the first and second films - brought Grillo back, this time with his Leo Barnes graduating to secret-service detail for presidential challenger Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a sitting senator running on an anti-Purge platform.
Election Year even tries to replicate much of the structural formula of Anarchy, with its cast of characters roving from location to location - mostly in the streets, periodically finding themselves in one tenuously safe space - while a larger narrative plays out around them. Barnes and Roan cross paths with fellow sympathetic non-Purgers like Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a convenience-store owner trying to wait out the night without too much damage to his property; Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), a folk hero on the streets, who roams around in an armored van protecting innocents from Purgers every year; and Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), who leads an underground anti-Purge rebellion.
To its credit, the film isn't content to simply repeat the successes of its predecessor; it raises the stakes and broadens the landscape, even introducing new details - like the influx of "murder tourists," mostly well-to-do twentysomethings from Europe who come to the States every year to participate in the Purge. But for the most part, its big gestures - the messages, the ideological targets, the recognizable parallels and exaggerations - are too obvious, and hollow to the point of being laughable.
There's a lot to be said that this movie is trying, and failing, to say. Using the premise of annual ritualized violence as an emblem of race- and class-based exploitation, and a pretext for a discussion of self-perpetuating cycles of wealth, power and discrimination, is a starting point with real potential. And couching a thoughtful, political framework like this in genre, the way the Purge movies have, is a time-tested, win-win model. But the franchise's inability to find nuance in its own ideas leaves Election Year stranded. Presenting those ideas in such literal terms has only made the central concept look foolish.