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September 30, 2016
by Casey Ellis
No one could mistake The Purge series as a masterpiece.  It is possible that the series is simply profiting from the appeal of violence.  However, I am doubtful of this claim.  To begin with, the films are hardly subtle.  Their attacks on unfettered capitalism and political tyranny are worn like badges of honor.  Artistically, this gets a bit shrill, and it is difficult to imagine viewers missing a message that is pounded into them relentlessly.  (Election Year’s advertising slogan is “Keep America Great.”)  I also had a tantalizing experience seeing Election Year, the only one of the three films I attended in the theater.  The audience, which nearly packed the theater, was racially diverse and about evenly split between men and women.  The majority were teenagers and I’m fairly sure I was the only member past mid-twenties in age.  To my surprise, there were no major disruptions during the film.  The violence was not gloated over or laughed at in any noticeable way.  One might conclude that the audience was simply bored by the film’s preachiness (as I occasionally was), but this seems unlikely.  Jump scares and laugh lines were loudly responded to, and cell phone activity was minimal, and virtually gone after the first half hour or so.  All in all, it was one of the quieter times I’ve had at a non art house film in a long time. 

While this viewing experience is purely anecdotal, I believe it points to something crucial The Purge series is doing, perhaps unconsciously, beyond even its ideological statements.  In the past, American popular cinema provided a space for films to engage in serious commentary, without compromising their mass appeal.  Horror films of the 1930s often contained thinly veiled references to religion, sexuality and war.  Film noir in the late 1940s to early 1950s frequently grappled, at times despairingly, with the cynicism and doubt that festered beneath the surface of America’s post World War II optimism.  To be sure, the central draws of these films were the cool monsters and the exciting crime stories.  Nevertheless, they did also have space for legitimate ideas, which sometimes verged on the subversive.  This space was largely lost after the rise of the artistically ambitious New Hollywood directors in the 1970s, and the blockbuster formula that eventually reacted against them.  American film has become polarized.  On the one hand, there are mainstream films, largely shorn of ideas except for occasional nods in the direction of conventionality.  On the other, there are self-consciously artistic films, often severely limited in popular appeal however wonderful some of them are.  By contrast, The Purge series, with its genuine thoughtfulness, coupled with a goal of providing entertaining sci-fi horror, appeals to perfectly intelligent audience members, who nonetheless primarily go to the movies for fun.  As such, it could be the start of restoring a vital middle ground in American film culture.                
For all of these praiseworthy achievements, one wishes The Purge series simply provided better movies.  Clumsiness is everywhere, especially in the acting.  Throughout the trilogy, there is only one truly stellar performance, Rhys Wakefield’s blood-chilling gang leader in the first film.  Other performances range from mildly effective to outright inept.  Needless to say, the very concept the series is centered around is absurd.  However, art is not just about aesthetic perfection.  For all its many flaws The Purge series makes firm, leftist critiques of society, and does so within a moral framework that encourages viewers not to give up, but to fight for something better.  That it has done so successfully in a popular, mainstream context is, when one considers the current cultural attitude toward such critiques, nothing short of miraculous.                                       
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