(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)
Pauline Kael once famously said “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The Purge series never pretended to be anything but trash, and yet its trashiness hides a potent idea that detractors have been very slow to acknowledge. Critics favor elegance over directness, and tend to look down on movies that make their points with a sledgehammer. But a message can still be powerful despite its obvious nature, and when it feels as eerily, potently pertinent to this time and place as the Purge movies do, it bears examining beyond the look-at-the-sleaze gimmick of it.
And I confess, I loves me some look-at-the-sleaze gimmicks. The interesting thing about The Purge series is how readily and easily the central premise develops into something with a little more bite. The first film basically skated along as a home invasion flick, with the added bonus of watching Ethan Hawke’s douchebag security salesman get hoisted on his own petard. But the film did well, and armed with the promise of quick, dirty returns on a modest investment, Universal set out to milk the cash cow for all it was worth.
The gimmick never changed in subsequent films, but they found something deeper and more primal in the process. They remain exploitation – and OMG get ready for logic holes you could park a bus in – but they back it up with some dark truths about human nature. Marry that to a ringer of a concept that plugs into America’s perennial fixation with violence, and suddenly, those logic holes become a lot easier to forgive. Like all great hooks, its simplicity hides so much more… and provides some real insight into our current predicament as well.
It goes something like this: once a year, for 12 hours, all crime is legal in the United States. America is free to indulge in its basest instincts, sending the death toll into the millions and holding up a mirror to reflect our collective souls. The catharsis of the “Purge” allows the country to live in near-utopian terms the rest of the year, with crime all but vanquished and prosperity reigning from sea to shining sea.
Of course, the Purge falls heaviest on poor and minority communities who can’t afford to protect themselves… which makes an easy way to reduce the demand for social services since millions of at-risk citizens suddenly drop dead once a year. The notion packs a serious wallop, and indeed the filmmakers simply need to come up with an appealing group of protagonists for each new movie, then find some way to leave them stuck outside when the balloon goes up.
As guilty pleasures go, the formula can’t be beat, especially when you add revenge porn to the mix (complete with a gaggle of one-note monsters for the heroes to gratuitously shoot in the head). You’ll-hate-yourself-in-the-morning button pushing remains the main purpose of the exercise, and if you don’t mind the hangover, the drink itself can be pretty darn tasty.
But the questions beneath it linger longer than the slightly greasy joy of watching bad people pay for our collective sins. Its vision carries a troubling plausibility, fed by reality show madness and a culture that encourages you to take what you want without apologies. The Purge has become a routine part of life in these films: another established norm around which politicians debate, but no one actually steps in and stops. And why should they? A substantial part of the populace loves the Purge. Some people make a lot of money from it. Others enjoy the chance to drop the façade of morality. Quite a few do both, and while the other side remains vocal in their opposition, what the hell are they gonna do about it? The population voted, and how can democracy produce anything evil?
The Purge becomes reality the same way any real-world horror does: by the consent of the governed. It merely takes that tragic tendency to its logical conclusion, and demonstrates how the will of the people unmoored by principles can turn into something depraved. The toxin spreads everywhere in these movies, forcing even those fighting it to play by its sick rules. Fear and rage rule on Purge Night, and though some characters may hate it with every fiber of their being, they still feel terrified for what might happen and furious at what does. It coats everyone with the same sick brush, leaving righteous and unrighteous alike tainted by its touch.
The insidious nature of that cultural appropriation looks all too familiar these days. The right has long used “base” or “unclean” culture as a straw man while encouraging winks and dog whistles about far worse deeds. All it took was someone like Donald Trump to excuse their basest instincts. “Hey, you don’t HAVE to pretend to like black people anymore! Fuck those Mexicans! Government procedure is for losers! Take what you want! Make those libtards cry! We’re done playing by the rules!” Suddenly, anything goes, and the other side needs to shift to an entirely new playing field whether they want to or not.
The best parts of The Purge movies allow for a long, slow meditation on that, as even the good guys (notably Frank Grillo’s redoubtable Punisher stand-in) find themselves tempted by the forbidden fruit on display. Class warfare constantly bubbles beneath the surface as well, with poor minorities often in the crosshairs and the wealthy conducting clandestine political games perfectly masked beneath the chaos.
We’re far closer to that reality that we thought just a few months ago, and The Purge movies never lose sight of it. Cheap entertainment remains the order of the day, but they’re smart enough to respect the potency they unearth and to deploy it in ways that go beyond low-rent gratification.
That stems from a long cinematic tradition, of course. Exploitation films could always say things and engage in issues that mainstream movies wouldn’t touch, solely because their creators could always shrug and tell critics to lighten up. Roger Corman slipped a surprising amount of potent commentary into his 60s drive-in schlock, while blacksploitation ushered in real African-American voices beneath the cash grabs. Horror films, in particular, always had their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist, from 50s fears of communism and nuclear power to the slasher films of the 70s butchering their way through post-Vietnam despair.
The studios long ago appropriated that model for their own use, which means The Purge movies can’t quite cut loose the way those earlier films could. Then again, appropriation goes both ways, and Universal – which earned its spurs on the monster movies of the 30s – always seemed more hip to that vibe than other studios. Ostensibly The Purge movies just want to deliver dirty thrills at a reasonable price, but they also dare to look into the abyss a little longer than expected. We’re all doing that these days, in one form or another, and the films earn tons of good will simply by providing a little camaraderie. “What the hell’s the matter with us?” we whisper as the madness deepens, to which The Purge responds, “I know, RIGHT?!” These days, we’ll take that comfort where we can find it.