Always Be Purging

by Ronan Wills

The Purge series course-corrected after an underwhelming first installment. How successful was it?
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Have you ever tried to watch one of those odd right-wing movies that come out occasionally, like the "documentary" work of Dinesh D'souza or hard-right evangelical movies like the esteemed God's Not Dead series? I always wondered what it would be like to be in the target audience for those things. Would you even realize how hard you were being pandered to? Would that overcome the fact that the movies aren't very good?

Then I took my first foray into the Purge series, and unexpectedly got the answer to both questions.

It's not a secret that the Purge franchise has a distinct left-leaning bias--the poster for the latest one looks like this--but I always figured it was the American definition of "left-leaning", where it drops mild center-left views and softball critiques of the current administration as though that's incendiary and daring to anyone who doesn't think the current Democratic party is one step away from embracing Maoism. In other words, I assumed it would be "liberal" with a view toward shocking and titillating the right, rather than pandering to the left.

Boy, was I wrong.

The first Purge (not The First Purge, that's the most recent one) is infamous for squandering its interesting premise on a rote home invasion story about rich white suburbanites being menaced by creepy weirdos in masks. In case you're not aware, said premise is that a vaguely fascistic, theocratic regime called the New Founding Fathers of America has taken power, and their solution to a supposed rise in crime and violence is to institute the Purge, one night a year where all crime is legal, so that people can vent their pent-up feelings of rage and bloodlust.

It had a bit of political bite to it--the protagonist is a man who got rich by selling anti-Purge home security systems to other rich suburbanites, thus leaving the poor to bare the brunt of the Purge's violence--but it's mostly remembered now as a huge misfire. So two years later, along came The Purge: Anarchy, which is basically what everyone thought the first Purge (not The First Purge though) was going to be before they saw it.

The movie follows a group of hapless chumps (a young couple on the verge of a messy divorce and a working class mother, Eva, and her seventeen year old daughter Cali) who end up stranded outside at the beginning of Purge night through various twists of fate, left to the mercy of the roving gangs of blood-thirsty purgers as the sun goes down.

Luckily, they all simultaneously happen across Leo Barnes, a brooding former soldier who's out to avenge his son's death by killing the man who ran him over in a drunk-driving incident. Barnes reluctantly agrees to help the four strangers get to safety, keeping one eye on his watch the whole time in case his chance for revenge slips through his fingers. But the situation is complicated by the presence of a suspiciously well-armed and well-trained group of murderers who seem to be targeting poor people for extermination...

The first movie vaguely hinted at the idea that the Purge is actually a population control method, with the instigators knowing full well that the lower rungs of the social ladder will make up most of the dead once the sun goes down; this movie confirms the theory, positing that America's new autocratic government cuts out the middleman by sending covert death squads to wipe out poor people during Purge night.

So, obvious metaphor, you get the idea, but the movie takes several steps into leftist twitter territory by making explicit the link between race and class in America (the death squads kill random people they happen across for funsies, but their deliberate targets seem to be exclusively working class people, all of whom shown on screen are black or latinx) and ultimately blaming the whole thing on capitalism (the New Founding Fathers of America--turn that into an acronym to see what they're getting at--are implied to be in the pocket of Big Assault Rifle). Also, the only government figure we see is named Donald and has a surname that begins with T (and this was in July 2014, a full year before Trump officially announced he was running for president).

But that's kid's stuff, you might be saying. That's babby's first leftist awakening. That's the kind of thing so-woke-they-haven't-slept-since-1995 white people pat themselves on the back for figuring out.

So okay, towards the end of the movie, our heroes get kidnapped by a gang of (exclusively white) rich people who hunt them for sport through a darkened warehouse. Leo takes a few of them down and steals their weapons and night-vision goggles, but the event organizers call in heavy reinforcements, and it looks like the protagonists are going to go out in a hopeless last stand. Then a (exclusively black) resistance militia that's been teased throughout the movie storms the compound and comes to the rescue. The militia members are all dressed like a cross between the Black Panthers and Che Guevera, and they start gunning down the hunters while yelling about how they're going to fucking murder the absolute fuck out of crusty rich people in the name of the poor and the downtrodden.

Also, one of the rich assholes looks suspiciously similar to Donald Trump Jr, even though--again--the movie came out in 2014.

Now, let's be clear on something here. Am I saying that The Purge: Anarchy is some kind of brilliant work of leftist satire?

No. Its actual exploration of all of these topics is shallow and surface-level, and as always when it comes to Hollywood, there's a good chance this is all just the product of executives realizing they can make mad bank out of appealing to angry liberals. If the 2016 election had gone the other way, there's a fair chance that the latest Purge movie would have been about wholesome suburbanites fighting off the predatory advances of scary, swarthy inner-city criminals. Also, there's an inherent hypocrisy with a movie trying to be vaguely anti-gun while also constantly having its heroes survive thanks to the power of sick headshots and near-future assault weapons that make a cool BOOOO-WHEEEE sound when you fire them. My point here isn't that Anarchy is laudable or #Woke, just that it's a novel experience to be pandered to this shamelessly by a big mainstream product.

But what about the movie itself, divorced from its political leanings?

It's...okay. It kept me entertained for ninety-some minutes, and it gets a lot of mileage out of the inherent tension of the premise. At the same time, the characters are monolayer-thin; only our boy Leo and Cali get anything approaching depth, having a sort of Joel and Ellie from The Last of Us dynamic where Leo wants to protect her (having a soft spot for kids is his sole personality trait outside of being a brooding hardass) while she asserts her independance and tries to convince him not to go through with his revenge killing. This stands out not for being particularly engaging or well-written, but because without it the movie would have no meat on its bullet-shredded bones at all.

The movie's biggest failure is Eva; the opening scenes seem to establish her as the movie's protagonist, and her character on paper--a young, struggling single mom with a dying father and a daughter who she seems to relate to more like a big sister than a parent--feels like a breath of fresh air compared to the parade of white suburban helicopter moms who usually feature in horror movies (like the first Purge (by which I mean the first movie in the series, not The First Purge)). But once the purging starts, she fades completely into the background, such that she may as well not be in the movie. I don't even think she has many speaking lines in the second half. I honestly wonder why she was in the story at all; having Cali be struggling through the Purge alone would have made Leo's paternal overtures carry a lot more weight.

Beyond that, the plot is very predictable. Do you think the resistance force that the movie keeps conspicuously highlighting will swoop in to save the day? Gosh, I wonder if the bickering divorcees will renew their bond during their ordeal, only for one of them to be killed at the most tragic possible moment? What if--get this--Leo decides to spare his son's killer after all, only for said killer to save his life moments before the Purge ends? You can see every single one of these plot beats coming from a mile away.

Even still, I did enjoy the movie despite it being a shallow bit of cinematic fluff, and not just because it hit my particular political buttons. It's breezy and easy to watch, and the central idea carries a lot of weight when it comes to keeping you engaged.

Coming out in 2016, The Purge: Election Year decided to rely even more heavily on topical relevance by depicting a Purge taking place shortly before a presidential election that threatens to upend the entire setting.

See, it's made clear in the previous movies that the New Founding Fathers, despite their use of autocratic power, aren't actually dictators. They were elevated to their current positions in a free election, and only continue to stay in power because people keep voting their designated presidential candidate into office every four years.

As Election Year starts, they're facing their first serious challenger in more than two decades (these movies straddle the line between alt-history, alternate present and near-future): Charlie Roan, an independent senator whose family was massacred in one of the earliest Purges eighteen years ago. Running on an anti-NFFA platform and promising to abolish the Purge by executive order the moment she's voted into office, Charlie is leading by a razor-thin margin as election day approaches, with the polls coming down to the wire and

Hang on a second, I need to go hyperventilate into a paper bag.

Okay, I'm back. So the NFFA get spooked by the possibility that Charlie might win and expose the (increasingly-obvious) fact that they're all lining their pockets at the expense of poor and disenfranchised people, and they decide to take her out of the equation before that happens. Luckily for them, Purge night is two months before the election; after lifting the rule forbidding purgers from targeting high-ranking government officials (yes, this backfires on them spectacularly), they send a squad of neo-Nazi skinhead mercenaries to capture Roan and bring her in for a ritualistic slaying.

Unluckily for our villains, Charlie's head of security is none other than Leo from the previous movie, who's trying to redeem himself for almost committing cold-blooded murder in the last Purge. After someone on his security team betrays them, Charlie and Leo are stranded out on the streets, where they run into some neighbourhood folks trying to protect their home turf from the roving purgers. Deciding to put their lives on the line for Charlie in the hopes of ending the Purge once and for all, they join Leo in an attempt to get her to safety before the NFFA's hired guns find her.

Here's the thing about the premise of the Purge franchise: its central idea is simple, easy to communicate and generates a lot of inherent tension with basically no work...but it's also very prone to diminishing returns (this is true of a lot of high-concept horror premises--there's a reason the Paranormal Activity movies went downhill after the first one, and why the first true Blair Witch sequel came out sixteen years after the original and wasn't very good). When the Purge siren starts up and our heroes anxiously go into lockdown mode, I didn't feel anywhere near the same prickle of unease as similar scenes in Anarchy or even the first movie elicited. Even the film itself seems to want to get this part over with as quickly as possible in order to launch into the plot.

Which is unfortunate, because the story this time around is both bigger and more muddled than before. Whereas the first two movies basically boiled down to "ordinary people find themselves unexpectedly vulnerable during the Purge, they try to survive", Election Year has way more moving parts and is far more ambitious.

The biggest casualties of this lack of focus are the ordinary people who join up with Leo in trying to protect Charlie. One of them is Laney Rucker, a women who drives an armoured ambulance during Purge nights in an attempt to atone for a hinted-at life of violence, during which she gained a reputation for being a gigantic badass. Naturally, when someone close to her is threatened, she takes on her unstoppable angel of death persona once more and starts wasting sadistic purgers in totally awesome fashion... for precisely one scene, after which she stands around a lot and fires handguns a few times.

I strongly suspect that there was an earlier version of this movie where Laney was the protagonist and the story dealt with her wrestling over whether or not to take up violence once more, presumably as part of an exploration of pacifism and the moral imperative to help people in distress--themes that the franchise seems to be naturally suited to--but someone decided that Leo should be the main character again, and Laney's plot thread was shoved into the corner.

If that is what happened then it was a bad decision, as Leo is completely uninteresting when divorced from his revenge plot and his paternal instinct towards Cali (who, along with Eva, seems to have vanished between movies). The movie tries to give him some more depth by sticking in a moral quandary over whether he should kill Charlie's opponent in the election--Leo wants to ice the guy, partially because he orchestrated the inciting kidnapping attempt on Charlie that got a bunch of Leo's subordinates killed and partially because he's really not confident that Charlie will win the election. Charlie insists that her victory has to be democratic to mean anything and that they should trust the American people to make the right choice (*cough*).

This argument continues even after most of the New Founding Fathers and their wives have been killed during the climactic action scene, which would seem to nullify whatever principle Charlie is meant to be taking a stand on; her political opposition has nearly all been slaughtered, so it's not really clear why killing this one guy is suddenly a step too far, particularly since he was seconds away from cutting Charlie's throat before Leo and crew burst in to save her.

Similarly, the leftist resistance from the last movie show up again and are planning to blow all of the Founding Fathers up with a bomb; Charlie begs them not to go through with this, but then most of the Founding Fathers get mercilessly gunned down ten minutes later anyway; the movie seems to treat this as somehow more justifiable or sympathetic, even though the NFFA were armed with melee weapons and not in a location where they could have actually threatened the heroes to begin with.

The whole thing is kind of muddled like this. Characters are introduced and then don't do much to justify their presence, new complications are added to the Purge concept that either don't make a lot of sense or seem like they would have come up before now (like the idea that ambulances such as the one driven by Laney are unofficially off-limits to Purgers, a rule which it really doesn't seem like anyone would take seriously) and the movie can't seem to decide what point, of any, it's trying to make. Rather than the nail-biting stand off from Anarchy where there's genuine tension over whether the heroes will survive, Election Year just finishes with a big shoot-out and then a sweaty, grunty knife-fight between Leo and the neo-Nazi leader.

As well as being messy, the movie is just kind of... silly. The gangs of Purgers this time around are over the top to a ludicrous degree, such as a gang of homicidal teenage girls whose outfits, dialogue and performances are all impossible to take seriously or treat as genuinely menacing. Also, there's this weird pre-Purge scene where they go into a convenience store and start acting all sexy and kinky with the household goods. I'm, uh, not sure what that was about. In the previous two movies, the Founding Fathers were firmly kept in the shadows. This time we get to see them front and centre, and it's a total farce. They're complete cartoon villains who stop just short of eating babies to show how evil they are. They even have a spooky non-verbal evil priest guy as a henchman, like they're in a bad Stephen King yarn.

The most interesting part of Election Year is the ending. Sure enough, Charlie is proven right when the American people make the right choice and vote for her in a landslide, proving once and for all that democracy and will of the people can be trusted to

Hang on, gotta get that paper bag out again.

So Charlie wins, but the very last scene is a radio broadcast about a wave of violence and destruction sweeping the country as enraged NFFA supporters rise up. The suggestion that the Purge franchise will tell a story about America falling into a state of civil war is interesting, but unfortunately both the next movie and the upcoming TV series are prequels; apparently, the creative minds behind the Purge series aren't quite ready to let their central concept change that radically. If they wait a few more years, maybe they can make a documentary about it instead.

Obviously, Election Year is a decidedly inferior product to Anarchy. As a Purge movie it cheapens the franchise's stronger qualities, and taken on its own it's just a sub-par, not terribly exciting action flick, the sort of thing that would pass the time well enough on a long flight, but which probably won't hold your interest in any other circumstances.

Horror franchises that run past two or three installments have a notorious tendency to both be terrible and also to try to constantly top themselves with bigger, flashier installments (this is frequently the cause of their drop in quality). For its fourth outing, the Purge series could easily have fallen victim to this mentality, trying to resuscitate a flagging concept with some gimmicky escalation (The Purge--In Space!).

Instead, The First Purge gets rid of the excess complication that weighed down Election Year, stripping things back to basics with a smarter, more nuanced take on the franchise's namesake.

Set during the first years of the New Founding Fathers' reign, The First Purge sees the regime conducting an audacious experiment: let the inhabitants of Staten Island go wild for one night, to see if it will help cure some of the social ills plaguing the region. It's the same setup that would become a national fixture by the time of the first Purge (the first movie, not this one), with one wicked twist: everyone who chooses to stay in Staten Island will be compensated...and the more enthusiastically they participate, the more money they'll get.

The story focuses on two very different leaders of the local community: Nya, a young activist orchestrating anti-Purge protests, and Dmitri, a drug kingpin out to keep his empire stable during the night of chaos. They used to be a couple, but were driven apart by ideological differences; now, of course, a mutual desire to take a stand against their oppressors brings them back together. Taking said stand becomes more difficult as the night goes on, because when the Purge doesn't lead to the widespread participation they expected, the experiment's controllers send in heavily-armed mercenaries disguised as gangs and extremist groups.

On paper, this sounds like a retread of everything the franchise has done before. The mechanics of Purge night, the unexpected circumstances that leave our protagonists vulnerable, the "twist" that the government is secretly pulling the strings to ensure the Purge turns out the way they want--it's all here, in basically the same form as the last three movies. What's different this time is that The First Purge takes a more thoughtful approach to its subject matter, which ends up bringing back a lot of the tension that had seeped away by the time Election Year rolled around.

Rather than diving headlong into Purge night as in the last two installments, The First Purge takes more time to establish the characters and give us a reason to actually care about them once the mayhem begins. It also stops to think about why people would actually participate in the Purge; rather than bands of wacky murderers in masks, a lot of the purgers this time around are ordinary people who act out of entirely realistic and believable motivations. Thrillingly, this includes Nya's brother, a teenager taking his first tentative steps into Dmitri's drug trade who heads out into the night with a gun tucked into his pocket over wounded pride and a desperate desire to conquer the fears that haunt him on the streets.

The Purge event itself plays out markedly differently this time around; rather than the instant orgy of violence we get in the other movies, this time around it's a slow boil where theft, vandalism and wild street parties vastly outnumber murders until the government steps in to kick things up a notch. This leads to a strong atmosphere of foreboding, as you know that everything's going to go to hell, but not exactly how or when.

The movie also adds a neat visual flourish with the introduction of camera contact lenses, given out to everyone who professes a desire to actively participate in the purging so that the experiment's controllers will be able to monitor their activities--and also, thanks to the contact's glowing irises, to make it harder for people to hide in the dark. They're kind of silly--for one thing, they're way more sci-fi than anything seen in the series to date, which muddies the already-murky question of when exactly the films are supposed to be set--but they give the whole thing a striking aesthetic, as purgers now have glowing, variously-coloured eyes that make them seem inhuman and monstrous.

The First Purge is the first movie made after the election of Donald Trump. Given how brazen Election Year was in its left-baiting, I expected the worst when it came to the movie's attempts to be #topical. But I was pleasantly surprised--the post-Trump aspect emerges as a simmering undercurrent of anger rather than cheap call-outs or parallels. All of the movie's main characters are black and from poor backgrounds, with the exception of the Staten Island experiment's controller, whose role in the story is minimal, and the plot is very firmly focused on the plight of the disenfranchised. Let's put it this way: I don't think a movie would unambiguously portray a drug kingpin as a hero in any other political climate (even tempered as it is by the fact that he--sort of--comes to regret his career choice by the end of the movie).

Which isn't to say that the movie is subtle. If the scene where Dmitri's soldiers gun down mercenaries dressed as klansmen with near gun-kata levels of stylishness isn't over the top, then the bit where white mercs disguised as policemen beat a black man to death in a baseball field (while the national anthem plays, just in case you didn't get it) certainly is. The Purge doesn't deal in subtleties.

(The one bit of imagery with genuine bite is a massacre in a black church carried out by goons dressed as white power activists, which I found frankly upsetting given the real-life parallels it's drawing from).

And that kind of goes for the plot, actually. A lot of the cool things I complemented at the beginning of this review--even the neat glowing eyes--gets ditched halfway through, as the various plot threads all get subsumed into the battle between the Staten Islanders and the government's mercenary forces. Looking back over the rest of the movies, the whole government angle tends to split the franchise's focus to a more or lesser degree. It seems that there just isn't time in a ninety-minute thriller to tell a story about the Purge and also a government conspiracy. Maybe the TV series will manage to balance the two plotlines.

I also worry about the movie's actual ideological position. The fact that the worst violence is carried out not by actual klansmen and white supremacists and police officers, but government-hired soldiers disguised as those things, feels too much like a liberal escape hatch, feeding into the hot new tendency to treat everything vile the Trump regime does (or everything vile that his supporters do) as recent aberrations and not a fairly mild escalation of things that have been going on in America for centuries. There's even a conspicuously-placed Russian element: don't worry, Democrats, all the bad things are the result of foreign interference!

Despite these rough spots, The First Purge easily stands alongside Anarchy as the best entry in the series, and it might even eclipse it. Cutting off the excess fat and bringing things back to basics lets the inherent strength of the core Purge idea shine again, and the leftist angle--as fake or not as it might be--can certainly be cathartic at times.

That said, I think this is probably the last time the franchise can pull that trick off. I still think the core concept has a near-limitless capacity for compelling stories, but any future Purge movies need to move beyond the gangs of masked killers. Let's see people using the Purge to carry out bank robberies, or maybe we could get a tale of corporate skullduggery where companies use Purge night to stage takeovers of an exceedingly hostile nature. You could wring a lot of bankable liberal anger out of those ideas.
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