On a Friday morning in July, two Fusion writers, political reporter Katie McDonough and news writer Charles Pulliam-Moore, went to see The Purge: Election Year. While they had anticipated being the only two people in the theater at 10:00 a.m. on the start of a holiday weekend, there were 17 other people along for the journey, each with a fevered curiosity about what happens when, on one night only, all crime is legal. (Including murder, in case you hadn't heard.)
What follows is spoiler-heavy discussion of the racial and class politics of Purging, advice on the best way to spend a Purge night, and whether or not this franchise is very good, very bad, or very good at being very bad.
Happy Independence Day, Purge Heads!
Katie: So The Purge is a movie in which the main villains are the U.S. government, comprised of and aided by white supremacists, and a car of black teenager girls who love Miley Cyrus.
Charles: Who love Miley Cyrus and have relatively easy access to gold-plated guns and top-notch costume making skills. I like to think that in preparation for Purge night, people get together, hit up the closest Michaels and brainstorm what their homemade outfits are going to be for the evening.
Katie: Same. So let's recap in brief and then get into it.
Charles: Let’s recap. But first, an image. Iconic:
Katie: So there is an election coming up, and Purge night is on the ballot. In a story point that entirely overestimates the power of the presidency, The Purge: Election Year is about two candidates who have staked their campaigns on whether to abolish or continue the Purge. In one corner, we have a generic white man who is into some Opus Dei shit and loves to Purge. In the other corner, we have a very earnest white female senator, whose survival of the Purge, in a country full of people who have survived the horrors of the Purge, is somehow made to be remarkable.
Charles: This particular Purge is—naturally—set in D.C.
Katie: After being betrayed by some of her own staff, Sen. Charlene Roan and her Secret Service muscle Leo Barnes are on the run. Leo also survived the Purge and did some bad things on Purge night that haunt him until this day. Everyone in The Purge is haunted. Also his son is dead. Everyone in The Purge's son is also dead. Their long day's journey into night leads them to a deli, where we meet Joe Dixon, a man who really loves his deli.
Charles: And Laney Rucker, a good friend of Joe’s who spends her Purge nights patrolling the city in a triage van helping those unfortunate enough to wander outside and get themselves hurt. And we can’t forget MVP Marcos, a relatively recent Mexican immigrant who learned a lot of different trades in Juarez—including, but not limited to: shooting guns and doing an OK job patching up bullet wounds. Is it safe to assume that Laney and Leo were in previous Purge movies?
Katie: Let's just agree that they were. No Googling. I'll say this, Charles: I think The Purge is a fundamentally conservative film.
Katie: Glad you asked! First: the film rides hard on this argument that the only protection against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Charles: Or a sensible knife ring.
Katie: True. Second, the basic premise of the franchise is that the elites' purging of the poor has led to unprecedented peace and prosperity—due in large part, as is repeated multiple times in this movie, to reduced spending on social services. That is bullshit. If I may:
Katie: See that? Major safety net programs account for a puny 10% of the federal budget! Clearly, if this is really about saving money, most of the purging should be directed at Social Security recipients or the members of Congress drafting our defense budget. One woman's opinion.
Charles: The more we get to know the pro-Purge Minister—Sen. Roan's opponent in the election—and the other founding fathers of the Purge, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a very strong religious component to the whole thing. They’re all driven by this fanatical compulsion that says the Purge is god’s will. See: crazy talk about the Purge letting god’s light into their hearts. But also: can we take a moment to describe how we’d actually deal with the Purge? Obviously, the most sensible thing to do is just stay your ass at home.
Katie: Yes, let's talk about the best way to spend Purge night. This is very important to me and I have thought about it a lot. I personally would hide in a bathroom at Whole Foods, wait for it to close, and then sneak out to steal a bunch of expensive probiotics and Dr. Hauschka night creams. I would also eat the rotisserie chicken.
Charles: Katie, no. They’d see you!
Katie: I'd like to think a community of likeminded people, more into petty theft than murder, would be there too and that we would be fine.
Charles: OK, wait. One of my biggest issues with this entire franchise is that there are no, like, nuances to how people deal with the Purge. Literally everyone is either “no thanks!” or “LET’S MURDER PEOPLE!" There are never any scenes with people stealing the things they can’t normally afford. Just one gratuitous scene, sort of like Target on Black Friday, would have been great. Even better, the mayhem could have devolved into murder! And it would have made perfect narrative sense.
Katie: Totally. It was frustrating that I could not see myself in The Purge.
Charles: So, we know who all of our players are on this stage and we know the basic points that the movie is trying to get across. Let’s talk about execution.
Katie: Execution. Like in The Purge. Nice. Did you find the movie visually compelling?
Charles: It’s a fucking feast for the eyes. Murder aside, the iconography is visceral and mesmerizing.
Katie: The Miley Cyrus-loving murder girls driving up in that beautiful car totally covered in lights was stunning. The shot of the Lincoln Memorial all Purged was a nice touch, too.
Charles: Like, I know that covering your car in Christmas lights is probably illegal, but I sort of want to do it? Also, the neon Lady Liberty and George Washington tasing our heroes in the back. That image will HAUNT me.
Katie: We forgot to introduce the other key players: the resistance. The movie wanted us to know that they were ~ complicated ~.
Charles: Ah yes, the oddly-organized resistance. So on the one hand, the resistance resists the Purge by sending out the triage vans to provide medical assistance. What we find out later on, however, is that the resistance’s leader, Dante, is also plotting to use Purge night as an opportunity to kill the founding fathers. Roan's not so down with the cause and raises the somewhat legitimate point that if the pro-Purge minister dies, he'd become a martyr for his cause and ruin any shot she had at the White House. In the real world, Roan's logic makes sense, but I feel like in the Purgiverse, she could have run a very effective campaign on the fact that she literally fought to the death to bring an end to the Purge and people would have loved it.
Katie: The Purge is clearly uncomfortable with the concept of By Any Means Necessary.
Charles: Which seems so silly for a movie with this premise. Obviously, characters have to make stupid decisions in order to move the plot forward, but I counted at least eight instances where someone royally fucked themselves by defying any sort of logic.
Katie: Do we want to talk about how The Purge handles itself as a movie about a white protagonist hero in a majority-black city on a night when a lot of crazy murdering is happening?
Charles: Of course we do. Though it isn’t credited explicitly, Race is pretty much the third leading character in this film. And it’s written horrendously! One thing I will say I loved about the people of color in this movie: basically everyone was coded as Afro-Latino, which you don’t see particularly often in movies like this. As minor a touch as it may seem, I was totally into the multilingual code switching that a bunch of the brown folks did.
Katie: I also appreciated that white supremacists were directly aligned with the government. The movie was like, "Hey, the government is all white supremacists and they hired these mercenary white supremacists to do more of white supremacy's bidding!"
Charles: The white power stitch-on patches were a lovely touch. On the back of those flight jackets too, so anyone you’re walking in front of knows what the deal is. Something that bothered me—even though the white supremacists didn’t actually say all that much—the ways in which their purposes were labeled (literally) was infinitely more interesting than the way that the protagonists of color were coded. Like, in a movie chock full of two-dimensional characters, the writing managed to consistently flatten Joe and Marcos damn near past the point of racist parody.
Katie: The thing I liked most about The Purge: Election Year was that it was very clearly written in one day, like five months ago.
Charles: I’m sure writer/director James DeMonaco, a white man, spent a lot of time thinking over lines like “There’s a bunch of negroes out there and we’re just sitting here like a bucket of chicken." Also: “It’s Purge night. You don’t sneak up on black people." Purge night or not. Never sneak up on black people. Never sneak up on people period. It’s a dick move.
Charles: Can we talk about the showdown between the D.C.-branch of the Crips and the Nazis? I love it when you can still smell the moment where an idea pops into a writer’s head and they spend no time at all actually thinking it through. Remember when we first see them? They’re in the middle of a gang fight that magically disappears after five minutes. There’s that glamor shot of men swinging axes and swords at each other, which I guess is how gangs fight over turf these days.
Katie: Of course.
Charles: Is this movie good?
Katie: The Purge: Election Year is bad.
Charles: Let me rephrase. Did you have a good time seeing The Purge: Election Year?
Katie: I had a very good time seeing The Purge: Election Year.
Charles: Do you remember a few months back when there was a recut of Mad Max: Fury Road that was entirely in black and white and had all of the dialogue stripped out with just the soundtrack pumped up in the background? It was basically a project to highlight the visual artistry of the film by stripping out all of the hackneyed dialogue. I feel like this Purge film would be about 10 times better with similar treatment. Cut the dialogue. Bump up the saturation a little bit. Lay in appropriate music.
Katie: I think that The Purge would do well with, uh, less dialogue.
Katie: Charles, I am glad that we avoided discussions about our current election and The Purge.
Charles: Please. I can’t even with that.
Katie: Because trying to sketch Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders into this shit is just embarrassing.
Charles: BUT. If we had to.
Katie: But Charles, we don't.