Austerity as Blood Sport

Austerity as Blood Sport

A scene from The Purge: Election Year (Michele K. Short © Universal Pictures)

The Purge: Election Year’s first major ad campaign debuted during a GOP debate, pairing a parade of ordinary Americans with a peppy string track meant to inspire civic duty. “I purge because staying in is un-American,” says a man in Carhartt and a construction hat. “I purged to keep my country great,” adds a grandfatherly figure in a diner. Punctuating Trump and the other candidates’ authoritarian shenanigans, the spot’s message was clear: the problem with all this isn’t us. It’s them.

Thankfully, the film kept its promise to punch up. The third installment in the Purge series—about an annual day of state-sanctioned lawlessness—contains its most acute rendering of the class war yet. Over the course of the series, conceived by writer and director James DeMonaco, we watch the bloody, eponymous ritual play out in a hypocritical gated community (in the first film), in the streets of Los Angeles (in the second) and, finally, in the very chambers of the U.S. government, where it is orchestrated by grotesquely evil elites out to “skin, scour and sanitize” America’s soul.

The trilogy’s post-Occupy roots are its defining feature. What was subtext in the previous two films comes center stage in Election Year: the titular purge is a way to shave people off welfare by letting the rich have at them. It’s the cornerstone policy of the Christian far-right New Founding Fathers of America, a shadowy regime of Ted Cruz–style Beltway evangelists with deep, corporate-lined pockets.

The future of the Purge and the NFFA alike has come under sudden assault from “wildcard independent candidate” Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a U.S. Senator who entered politics after her entire family was slaughtered in a Purge eighteen years before the film takes place. Her run for president—on an anti-Purge, populist and vaguely redistributive platform—has shaken up NFFA apparatchiks, on edge already thanks to pressure from below. (A faux news clip early on tells us there have been riots to end the Purge.)

“Is the cunt that close?” snarl NFFA higher-ups (there are only higher-ups) about the polls when we first meet them behind closed doors. Sipping whiskey in a boardroom, they hatch the assassination plot against Roan that drives Election Day’s action forward. As if it weren’t already clear enough who the enemy is, the NFFA hires a Blackwater-esque neo-Nazi thugs to do the job. And because the Purge series is allergic to subtlety, the back of their SWAT-style getups read “White Power.”

That the Purge constitutes some kind of shared sacrifice is a known shamf to the audience and nearly every character in the film. The biggest lie of all, here, is that humans are base and vile creatures, in need of some blood-soaked outlet for their animal instincts. “Purge and purify,” as the founders chant, is a rich man’s game. Few can pay for the expensive weapons and hired guns needed for a successful night out picking off plebes. Worse, the wealthy are also the only ones who can afford to shelter themselves from the annual horrors in underground bunkers, which Roan shuns in favor of beefed-up security at her D.C. townhouse. Well-to-do families hire teams of working-class mercenaries to hunt down the homeless for purge ceremonies conducted in the comfort of their own homes. More communally minded elites attend NFFA “Purge Services,” a post-midnight mass where the main event is killing several strangers. Eager to get in on the action, wealthy “murder tourists” are now flocking to America’s shores for a taste—and to don some of the film’s best costumes.

Most people, meanwhile, are left to fend for themselves; underlying all of this is the assumption that there are an undefined number of people who’d be better off dead. Deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a central character, has to fortify his shop after the insurance company raised his “Purge premium” by thousands of dollars days before the big night. Like the last Purge, Election Year goes to sometimes ham-fisted lengths to explain why the ritual is such a disaster for most of society. Non-elite purgers are more sideshow than villain, almost a source of comic relief (because after Spring Breakers, not throwing four teenage girls with bedazzled machine guns into a Christmas-light covered sedan blasting “Party In the USA” would have been a missed opportunity).

Election Year devotes as much screen time to the anti-NFFA resistance as to the Purge itself. Introduced in the second film as a loose band of underground guerrilla fighters, this year’s installment shows a wider range of anti-regime organizing. Joe’s friend Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel), a resistance member, spends purge night driving around D.C. in a bulletproof van, shuttling people from chaotic streets to a “Safe Zone,” where movement-friendly doctors offer free medical care. All hospitals are closed during the Purge, so its enemies step in with “survival programs” in the Black Panthers mold. Like most of the film’s ensemble cast, the resistance is staffed almost exclusively by working-class men and women of color, most of them black. And though Roan is ostensibly the film’s main character, her role consists mainly of being guided around by her brawny chief of security (Frank Grillo) at Joe, Laney, and other rebels’ direction.

Happily, the film’s election lede is misleading. Election Day is about collective action. Roan’s success as an insurgent politician—not unlike Bernie Sanders’s—is in her ability to give voice to widespread discontent, not to tell people something they don’t already know. Her candidacy is a chance to generalize the demands that have been repeated by the film’s resistance fighters for years, and would have been impossible without them. And her support from the resistance is won rather than assumed. “My people are on our own,” one resistance member warns her. “No matter what you promise.”

The Purge is campy blockbuster blood sport that doesn’t sacrifice cheap thrills for minutiae like character or plot development. Its strength is in striking an almost even balance between place-setting and choreographed killings, letting the action play out in what might be the most elaborately constructed dystopia this side of Children of Men. Given another hour or two of screen time, writers would have found a reason to bring up the debt clock.

Director James Demonaco, of course, is no Alfonso Cuaron. Election Year’s brilliance is its premise and a tongue firmly planted in cheek. But what really sets the Purge universe apart is that it’s not a dystopia built on subjugation, like Elysium, Snowpiercer, or even the Hunger Games. Its fictional 1% live among its 99, and, day to day, their America looks a lot like ours, without a whiff of either futuristic or totalitarian pretense. There’s no romanticized pre-Purge hay day that characters are fighting to win back—just a sense that long-standing inequality has finally reached a breaking point. The NFFA regime’s founding myth is one of harmony and equality of opportunity—that the rising, blood-red tide of the Purge has lifted all boats. Crime and unemployment are down to record lows in exchange for an annual bloodbath and violent exclusion. That the team behind Election Day settled on Make America Great Again as a makeshift tagline makes it all the more chilling.

For a movie about ritualized massacre, The Purge maintains a pretty rosy take on human nature, at least among the rabble. Violence isn’t a collective problem in the NFFA’s world. It’s a systemic one, administered from on high as a targeted dose of austerity. “They want the impossible,” one NFFAer moans to his co-conspirators in an early scene. “They want everyone to have. Some cannot have. There is not enough to go around.”  Rather than dragging it out through the year by closing schools and hospitals (though that probably happens too), the Purge allows the government to cut thousands from its safety net in one foul swoop—and in the name of god and country! It’s also an economic boost for the country’s job creators, namely insurance companies and gun manufacturers. It’s no coincidence that those who own the means of production in the Purge universe also own the most efficient killing machines.

Granted, The Purge leaves some political questions unanswered. (Why would the NFFA and associated business elites be so eager to hack into the “reserve army of labor”? And why so much emphasis on murder? Are there also white-collar criminals who, between turns bathing in prole blood, take turns committing tax fraud and insider-trading schemes?) But it’s an uncanny reflection of the quasi-consensus among elites that has crystallized since the passage of welfare reform twenty years ago: that society’s most destitute have no choice but to fend for themselves in a vicious world.

Where most horror explores the beasts within, The Purge: Election Day takes aim at the beasts in the system. There are no vampires or werewolves, hiding their urges from the world, or zombies stumbling around to play the part of soulless, empty consumers. In their place is the NFFA, the establishment’s embodiment left shiftless by a resistance—grassroots and now electoral—too big to be contained. In 2016, we have met the enemy and he is scared.


Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based writer and the communications coordinator for the New Economy Coalition.