No one is more surprised than I am that I've become such a big fan of The Purge films, which take place in a not-too-distant future where the government sanctions a yearly 12-hour lawless period so Americans can "cleanse" themselves of their murderous rage. While the first Purge film was marketed as a horror film (a genre I've never enjoyed), that pretense was largely abandoned in The Purge: Anarchy, which focused more on the fact that minorities and the poor are disproportionately targeted during the Purge, seemingly with the involvement of the government in collusion with wealthy conservatives. Amazingly, with combined budgets of just $12 million, Purge and Anarchy raked in over $200 million internationally.
Now we have The Purge: Election Year, which fully, finally embraces what the Purge series truly is: a surprisingly compelling sociopolitical allegory/action thriller that skewers right wing ideology. And with Election Year arguably being the best, most coherent, and plot-driven of the trilogy, I'm expecting even more success for this unlikely franchise, which has already made over $36 million in four days -- more than three times the film's budget. And it's hard not to be fascinated by why the Purge films are resonating so strongly, especially in this era of an unhinged republican party. Watch the trailer for The Purge: Election Year below.
Election Year sees the return of "Sergeant" Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo from Anarchy), who is now the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is running for president on a pledge to end the Purge. Unbeknownst to her, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), the conservative/Christian extremist party that created the Purge, plans to use the Purge to assassinate Roan to secure the election for their candidate, a church minister (Kyle Secor). When Barnes and Roan are forced to flee into the streets of Washington D.C., they join forces with a distinctly non-white group consisting of a bodega owner (Mykelti Washington), his trusted employee (Joseph Julian Soria), and a member of the anti-Purge resistance (Betty Gabriel) as they are hunted by the white neo-Nazi leader (Terry Serpico) of an NFFA-sponsored paramilitary team and the usual groups of masked purgers. Edwin Hodge, the target of purgers in the first film, also returns, making him the only actor to appear across the trilogy.
With Election Year's clear racial/class politics and its unofficial tagline of "Keep America Great", the Purge films have now shifted from being an horror/action film with some light sociopolitical touches to a sociopolitical action thriller, with only creepy masks and a few jump scares to remind you of the trilogy's horror origins. And with Election Year primed to outgross Anarchy, everyone from audiences to studio executives are clearly loving it.
The big question is: why this kind of film, and why now?
My guess is that it has something to do with the way young people (the Purge trilogy's target audience) regard today's republican party as it becomes increasingly unhinged and dangerous.
The republican party has long used patriotism/jingoism, Christian conservatism, a twisted view of what "freedom" is, and a belief in the problem-solving powers of violence to justify stances and legislation that disproportionately harm minorities, the poor, and women while benefiting wealthy white people and certain industries. I doubt that it's a coincidence that the NFFA utilized the exact same strategy in creating the Purge, which is justified in both patriotic and religious terms. Good Americans are encouraged to exercise their patriotic right and freedom to purge, and through the cleansing power of violence, both the nation and individuals are able to purify, sanctify, and emerge reborn. At the same time, the home security, insurance, and weapons industries profit off of Purge misery -- Election Year calls out the NRA by name as Purge profiteers, and one of the film's subplots revolves around the fact that Purge insurance premiums have suddenly spiked.
I find it hard to believe that this kind of conservative duplicity is lost on fans of the Purge trilogy. After all, these fans are the ones who have grown up listening to republicans use religious freedom to justify discriminating against LGBT people, concern for women's health to justify shutting down abortion providers, calls for scientific rigor to justify inaction on climate change, the specter of voter fraud to justify preventing minorities and students from voting, and patriotism to justify putting military-grade weapons in the hands of any civilian who wants them. While it's accepted as fact that young people don't follow politics, it's hard to think of a time when the political has been more personal.
So it makes sense that a slightly exaggerated version of the republican party, the NFFA, would make excellent villains for young people who largely reject the republican party and its "values". A not-too-distant-future dystopia would be an America where republican rule went largely unchallenged, allowing the GOP to install the cruelest, most racist, most poor-hating legislation possible and obscure it with the most deceitful, jingoistic, and sanctimonious propaganda they could muster.
An increasingly thicker thematic string running through the Purge trilogy is how average people -- particularly minorities, the poor, and the compassionate -- begin to see and react to the truth about what the Purge really is: a way for the wealthy and powerful few to maintain the status quo at the expense of vulnerable groups. And while the heroes' primary goal in the Purge films is to simply survive the night, their bigger challenge is whether they will have the moral conviction and compassion to fight back against the concept of the Purge itself by risking their own lives to protect the lives of strangers, even if it means killing their would-be murderers.
But in Election Year, it's an inspiring presidential candidate with a political solution who is the film's would-be hero. That is, if she can survive the Purge. And, as one character asserts, if she can win Florida on Election Night.