The problem with the Purge films is that they feel like they're beta-testing their own premise.
Let me explain.
Beginning in 2013 with the micro-budget The Purge, a film distinguished by its ghastly premise and a nice late-period genre-hack performance by Ethan Hawke, and continuing through 2014's The Purge: Anarchy, and now this new one, this franchise delights in images of excessive, cartoonish, aestheticized violence. At the same time, its ostensible message is that excessive, cartoonish, aestheticized violence is bad and wrong and that we should feel bad about indulging it.
The Purge is a social-science-fiction film series in which America has reduced crime and all but eliminated a costly social safety net with an annual celebration in which all crime – including murder! – is legal for 12 hours. Yet its heroes are those who conscientiously resist, or fight back, against the grisly holiday. It is, in a word, incoherent.
It would be one thing to bait the viewer's blood lust and then punish them for it. But the films command an audience that's enchanted by its displays of blood-drenched yahoos in kooky masks satisfying their barely repressed psychopathy. Judging by the series' not-unremarkable box office returns, and the cackling and clapping gallery at the recent midtown Toronto press screening, such a viewer is in no short supply. The problem with the Purge films is they feel like they're made for people who would actually take part in the purge.
Election Year's token objector is Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential hopeful campaigning on a pledge to end the perennial purge by appealing to, as she puts it (copping Abraham Lincoln's old chestnut), "the better angels" of America's nature. She's a nuisance to film's governing body of elites, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFAA), who use the auspices of the purge to have her eliminated by a squad of elite force neo-Nazis, their dark military garb festooned with swastikas and Confederate flag patches.
The Senator is aided in her 12-hour, ticking-clock survival plot by her security chief, played by Frank Grillo. Grillo is supposedly reprising his role from the previous film, in a rare bit of overarching franchise continuity, but he might as well be a new character. His cookie-cutter hardass barely registers onscreen, thanks in large part to Grillo himself being one of the most unremarkable third-string actors currently working in Hollywood. From his used-car salesman name to his boring good looks – Grillo is handsome, but in the uninspired way a male model stuffed near the back of a sports jacket catalogue is technically, matter-of-factly handsome – he's an utterly charmless performer, with little to do but grunt through a string of abysmally shot shoot-'em-up sequences.
The two are also accompanied by a gaggle of lower-class, black and Latino Washington residents. The fates of the haves and have-nots drawn together by the looming threat of purge night extinction, they hustle through various seedy, dimly lit backdrops, before falling in with a radical sect aiming to take out the NFAA and ensure the Senator's election to the broken nation's highest office.
It's here that the generalized ideological intelligibility of the Purge films achieves the apex of idiocy. Watching Mitchell's white saviour politician lecture a black radical leader (Edwin Hodge) on the hypocrisy of revolutionary violence isn't just stupid and tasteless – it's physically uncomfortable. (And especially because Senator Roan and co. engage in all kinds of wanton murderousness, political and otherwise, in spite of such screeching protestations.)
The ultimate, putrid irony of the Purge franchise doesn't lie in its nonsensical take on America's culture of violence. Or even in the way it flirts with notions of institutionalized racism only to cement hackneyed racial caricature.
It's in the way it pretends to challenge the viewer's belief in the idea of America, and in the democratic system itself, only to turn on its heel and totally restore faith in those splintered ideas, running a battered and bloody but not-much-worse-for-wear star spangled banner up the flagpole and saluting it, without anything like humour, irony, or even contempt to temper the patriotic bluster.
The problem with the Purge films is that the better angels always prevail – a thesis that's not so much speculative sci-fi or social satire as aspirational high fantasy.