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'Purge: Election Year': What Is Our Fascination with Watching People Be Murdered?

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 1, 2016 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 1, 2016 |

After watching The BFG last night, I had to take my son home before returning to watch the late screening of The Purge: Election Day. On the drive home, he asked why he couldn’t watch The Purge, too, and I told him that it was a horror movie and that he’s not old enough to watch them yet.

“So, it’s too scary?” he asked.

“No, not exactly. It’s not really a ‘scary’ movie.”

“But I thought all horror movies were scary.”

“A lot are, but some aren’t,” I told him.

“Then what makes it a ‘horror movie?’” he asked.

Trying to explain to a nine-year-old what a horror movie is, is kind of like trying to define ‘irony.”

“Well, you know. Horror movies usually have a bad guy who is trying to kill everyone.”

“So, Lemony Snicket is horror?”

“Well, no. That’s a children’s book, and though there is a bad guy who tries to kill others, it’s really more about the story and the characters. Horror movies have story and characters, but they are mostly about the killing.”

“Oh,” he responded, which is the same reaction I had in my head to my own statement. How strange we are as a species that so many of us are drawn to movies where the point is to watch people get murdered in often gruesomely creative ways.

When I got home, I looked up the definition of “horror films,” and saw that Wikipedia defined them as movies that “seek to elicit negative emotional reactions from viewers.”

Why would we intentionally pay to experience a negative emotional reaction? It’s a bizarre notion, but it’s one that makes the premise behind The Purge films easier to understand. How much distance do we really have to travel between wanting to watch people get murdered on the big screen and wanting to actually murder people in real life? Does watching people get murdered provide a similar cleansing experience as the one boasted by the murderers in The Purge? For horror, The Purge films are very popular, and one has to wonder if our desire to watch them is a precursor to our own desires to live them out.

In other words, if you could murder without consequence, would you?

I can’t imagine any circumstance that didn’t involve defending the lives of loved ones that would drive me to murder, but I admit to an appreciation for The Purge movies, and Election Year is my favorite of the trilogy. It takes itself more seriously as social commentary than the others, but somehow less seriously as a movie. It’s not subtle about its social commentary, either, suggesting that a potent combination of the NRA and Christian evangelism has brought us to the brink of governmentally sanctioned murder, especially where it concerns the killing of poor people and minorities. Of course, it’s not legal to murder, but if it’s a black guy wearing a hoodie walking around in the dark, our jury system might look the other way. Right, George Zimmerman?

After 25 years of the annual purges organized by our NRA-like Founding Fathers in order to reduce welfare and other social services by making it legal to kill anyone during a 12-hour window each year (and by “anyone,” the movie means poor people), Election Year finally starts to push back when Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost) runs for President on a platform of ending the Purges. When her chances at winning the election start to look promising, the Founding Fathers arrange to have her assassinated during the annual purge.

It’s mostly what you expect. It’s Hunger Games with more violence and scarier masks. The Founding Fathers hire some white-power mercenaries to track down the Senator, who — along with her bodyguard (Frank Grillo) — end up on the run with the owner of a small mom-and-pop store (Mykelti Williamson), his Mexican immigrant assistant (Joseph Julian Soria) and a former gang member turned Purge-night paramedic (Betty Gabriel).

There’s a lot of murder in Purge: Election Year, but thanks to Mykelti Williamson there’s also a lot more humor in the form of one-liners than previous The Purge movies. The writing is not great, the social commentary is not sophisticated, and most of the performances are indicative of the B-level cast. But it’s brutal, nasty fun and immensely satisfying in parts, if only for this movie’s particular knack for turning whiteness into an evil characteristic and then snuffing it out.

Just don’t expect not to feel guilty about enjoying it afterwards.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.