Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Films of 2016: The Purge: Election Year

To my admiration -- not to mention surprise -- The Purge franchise has not only pinpointed a consistent path to box office success over three movie installments, it has deepened, since 2012, the depth and breadth of its social commentary.

In short, the movies have become more courageous in their social/cultural observations over time. They have also become more confident, in many ways, regarding the fascism of the franchise’s (fictional) dystopian U.S.

This evolution of courage makes The Purge a political horror movie series, and so here we have The Purge: Election Year in 2016: the year of the Clinton-Trump showdown.  

Accordingly, it would be absolutely foolish not to discuss this horror film in terms of its politics and the larger historical context of our age.

I realize some readers won’t like that I discuss politics in a movie review.  Unfortunately for those people, all movies arise in a specific context, and reflect that context.  They can choose to ignore that and just view movies as entertainment. There are other reviews here to read, if that’s how they prefer to proceed.

But The Purge: Election Year is a mirror for all of us, and one that we should be brave enough to face.

Indeed, The Purge: Election Year fulfills the highest aspiration of the horror film as a format because it taps into the prevailing Zeitgeist of the U.S. It gazes at our culture and extrapolates about just how bad things could get, if something doesn’t change…and soon.

The film envisions terror and division in the direction we are headed as a nation. The film is entertaining and immersive too (as both previous films in the series have been…) but this Purge movie doesn’t mince words about what it is really about: what could happen when one of our primary national parties becomes a vehicle for extremist rhetoric and values.

Once a party of “family values” and “free markets” and opportunity, that party has become, instead, a festering haven for nativism, racism, violence, and every other dark instinct of the human soul.

What happens to that party if it keep going on its current track…and gains power?

The Purge movies, and Election Year in particular, depict that horrifying possibility.

“The soul of our country is at stake”

Eighteen years after the first annual Purge, the New Founding Fathers are losing their grip on power. It has been revealed that the Purge is actually a method by which the government kills society’s “dead weight” (meaning those who take “entitlements” like health care and unemployment insurance).  

The nexus between the New Founding Fathers, Big Business, and the NRA have been revealed for all to see.

As the Purge nears, one candidate running for President, Senator Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is surging in the polls.  If she wins the presidency, she promises to end the Purge one and for all, and more and more citizens are coming around to her perspective.

But the New Founding Fathers are not about to see jeopardized the world they have made; the world that benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.  So shortly before Purge Night, the party suspends rules about the murder of politicians.

Senator Roan is to be a target, so that her campaign to end the Purge will die with her. 

Fortunately, a survivor of a previous surge, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is at the senator’s side, working as her security chief.

But even Leo can’t stop the government assassins all alone, and he and the Senator end up on the run, requiring the help of a small business owner, Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his employee, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria)…

“It is time to rely on the better angels of our nature.”

Earlier Purge movies were not quite as up front about their political leanings as this one, but Election Year makes the dynamic unmistakable. 

The New Founding Fathers -- the political party behind the Purge ritual – clearly represent a white nationalist party.

Its heavily armed soldiers resemble skinheads, and wear uniforms emblazoned with the Confederate Flag. One motto of the soldiers, seen at least once, is “white power.” 

The New Founding Fathers are also in the pocket of the NRA (according to the film’s dialogue), and have adopted as (bloody) principle the desire to “cut the fat” from American society so that there are less people around who are reliant on government programs.

One way to cut the health care or welfare lists?

Execute the recipients.

In other words, in The Purge: Election Year the top 1% -- the wealthiest of the wealthy in America -- prey on the 99% so they can pay less in taxes and keep more of their income for themselves.

These Purgers are thus the makers, but they are also the takers…of our lives (and our country). 

And it’s also pretty clear that the New Founding Fathers are a not-very distant evolution of what we recognize today as a major political party today.

The Purge: Election Year also makes a brilliant and accurate connection that needs to be called out on a larger societal scale in 2016. Specifically, the filmmakers comment on the hypocrisy of some American Christians who worship their guns, not Jesus.  Here, we witness an NFF ritual in a Church that is actually an excuse for bloody violence. 

A priest officiates, but it is not spiritualism that is sated, but sadism. 

Is murder our new religion?” one character asks.

Well, certainly we live in a real life culture wherein (irresponsible) politicians refer to “Second Amendment Remedies” to overturn democratic elections, so that’s a valid and on-point question. And one candidate in this election said (of another) that “if she gets to pick her judges…nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people – maybe there is, I don’t know.” 

That is a veiled threat to use guns to murder a president, and overturn the will of the people…and the statement should terrify all Americans, liberal or conservative.


In America, we settle our differences not with bullets, or threats of violence, but at the ballot box.  And if our side loses come Election Day, we get to try again in four years, and we succeed not by being the biggest bully, or the loudest screamer, but by having the best ideas.

Yet we have a major party candidate in 2016 who incites violence, who has been endorsed by David Duke, who gins up fears and hatred, who blames scapegoats for society’s failures, and who has already said that if he doesn’t win, his followers should take up arms because the system is rigged.

What does this mean? 

We’re only one election from the reality of the Purge, perhaps.

In the film, we see a party espousing similar views; entrenched in power, unstoppable.  And it is the one that rigs the system, in this case suspending a Purge rule that protects politicians. The New Founding Fathers do so to assassinate the greatest threat to their power: Senator Roan.  The goal of the NFF is to stay in power, and enrich the party, at the expense of everyone else. In perpetuity.

And who is everyone else?

The filmmakers give us several strong protagonists here -- across many demographic groups -- and thus represent the look and feel of modern America. We have an African-American small businessman, a Latino deli employee, a female senator, a white male secret service agent, and more.  

They all fight for the common good of all, and an end to the violence of the Purge. Many fight with their lives, and lose them. 

But the message is that these people aren’t afraid of their differences. They don’t dwell in a world of distrust and hate for one another. They share an American “morality” that the New Founding Fathers clearly lack.

There are scenes in The Purge: Election Year of street violence too – there’s one particularly nasty African-American female purger-- and that’s important to talk about too.  The film attempts to be even-handed in the depiction of “the Purge,” rather than a polemic.  But the inference is obvious: the violence of the purge is societal, and infects everybody, of all creeds and colors.

The film also features some brief “foreign” villains: international visitors to the United States for the purge who are called “Murder Tourists.”  They come to our shores to experience a uniquely American ritual, the Purge, and absolutely get into the violent spirit of the event.

Frighteningly, some of the murderers we encounter in the film dress as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty.  It is bracing, indeed, to see these symbols of Americana converted to figures of terror and bloodshed.  

The final shoe dropping regarding the death of democracy, indeed, is the co-opting of such symbols of American morality and history for the purpose of the Purge.

One character in the film asks the question: “How did it get to this?”

The Purge: Election Year leaves that question hanging in the air, and permits us the opportunity to answer for ourselves.

How did it get to this?

In the real world, we’ve had years of the fever growing worse and worse, and done nothing to stop it. Most of us have done nothing to call it out.

Instead, we keep giving a national megaphone to those who traffic in ignorance, nonsense, and hatred.

The Purge: Election Year shows us one possible outcome of that history.


  1. We definitely need more films like the Purge series. The 1960s and 70s saw so many interesting interpretations of what our future society would be like; "Soylent Green" showed us a future where the environment and overpopulation is out of control and we euthanize our elderly. "Rollerball" and "Network" showed us what our society can become when big business controls what the masses with reality TV and violent sports events that spur on a sort of fake nationalism. The Purge series holds a mirror to our society and says "be careful" because this is what we might become if we're not careful.

    On another tangent, much of the outdoor scenes for The Purge:Election Year were shot in my hometown of Woonsocket, RI (including the bodega scenes and much of the street violence filmed on Main street and the interior church scenes which were filmed at a beautiful decommissioned church ). Many of the other scenes were shot in Providence. Woonsocket been used as a location for a number of films over the past few years, from the TV show "Brotherhood" on Showtime to ""Hachi: A Dogs Life" with Richard Gere. Just wanted to point this out and bring some attention to my hometown!

    1. I love it when a film uses a great location like Rhode Island, instead of the usual ones that are always over used.


  2. John, interesting review of this intense film franchise latest release. If you did not already know, THE PURGE is in development to be a television series. So maybe each season will be one purge night. Sadly, unlike these films, in reality we have an actual "purge" that has been going on for years, every week in Chicago with all the murders that the political powers ignore. Since it is the President's home town let's end this real "purge" first.


  3. Reading this review now (July 26th 2018), it is absolutely bone chilling to see just how in touch this film (and the franchise) was and is with the current horrific rise of fascism, as the pinnacles of American Democracy (along with the notion of facts and reality) get demolished more and more each day under the tireless assault from the Authoritarian leader who occupies the White House.

    For whatever reason, I was late to the game catching up with this franchise and decided to start with the new prequel out in the theaters this summer. Then I went on a "Purge" binge.

    I am astounded how good these movies are. Not only because of the insightful, searing, social and political commentary that you analyzed so well above, but also because the filmmaking itself is outstanding. These movies are very well written, shrewdly directed, beautifully photographed, and feature an array of strong performances by charismatic actors. I really loved seeing the always outstanding Elizabeth Mitchell in "Election Year", my favorite of the series. It plays like a horror version of "24" or "Homeland", two of my favorite TV shows of all time.


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