Sunday, December 4, 2016
The exploitation horror that made me cry
They say timing is everything.
Those who watched The Purge: Election Year before November 8th, including everyone who saw it in the theater, would have seen quite a different movie from those of us who watched it since then.
And I am still trying to grapple with the experience I had on Friday night, but mostly Saturday morning, watching this movie.
It was mostly Saturday morning because I had indeed been too ambitious trying to rent this to watch it on Friday night. As you may remember from yestereday's post, I picked up this movie as a substitute for Nerve, which had not been successfully reserved for me, in order to watch after I got home from drinks with work friends. I for some reason anticipated getting home by 10 and having plenty of time to watch it, expecting not to fall asleep even though I'd be tipsy if not out-and-out drunk. Instead, I walked in the door at 12:30 and still started watching the movie, as it would be due back at 9 p.m. the next night, and a dad with two kids doesn't have a lot of time to be watching Purge movies on a Saturday afternoon in early December.
Predictably, I made it through only 20 minutes, leaving another 70-some for the next morning. Which I managed to carve out, as I do usually have some time to myself after the kids wake up but before our day really gets going.
A more fortuitous turn of events could not have happened.
Simply put, I needed my mind engaged to have the profound experience with The Purge: Election Year that I ended up having, which is unlike any I can remember.
(And I just crossed 4,700 movies, so that's really saying something.)
Simply put, I cried.
Not once, but twice.
If you're wondering why the hell this movie would make me cry, I'll try to give you a little bit of an idea what it's about.
The original Purge, as you would likely know, is about a version of American society in the not-too-distant future in which there's a single night each year where all bets are off. Any crime is legal that night, including (and especially) murder. Me, I might try to steal a bunch of money instead, but most people are out to sink an axe into somebody's head.
The original Purge was shit, I thought. I gave it a star-and-a-half and did not come back for The Purge: Anarchy. I thought it was a dumb way to explore a smart concept.
The smart way to explore this concept apparently came in the third movie, according to me. In this third installment, it's an election year (duh), and the candidates for president are a demagogue minister representing the right (played by Homicide's Kyle Secor), whose party is responsible for the existence of Purge Night and has been in control for 25 years, and the liberal senator who wants to abolish it, who also happens to be a woman (Lost's Elizabeth Mitchell). Usually certain political officials and others are exempt from the lawlessness of Purge Night, but in a desperate attempt to hold onto power, the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America) do away with this exemption pretty much expressly so they can make a play at the upstart liberal senator and try to end her presidental bid via assassination.
It's hard to say for sure whether the makers of The Purge: Election Year knew who exactly would be running for president in our real election year, but the similarities between Mitchell's Charlotte Roan and Hillary Clinton are not likely to be coincidental. Although Clinton has been referred to as Secretary Clinton because she held that office more recently, she too served as a senator, and shares a hair color with Mitchell. Secor's minister is different from Donald Trump in many ways, as even Trump would not stoop to the blatant falsehoods necessary to convince us he's been a saint. But something about the minister's dismissive manner is very Trumpian.
What struck me so much about the movie was not simply that it represented something like a real look at the combatants in the 2016 election, but it made them into almost literal combatants. There were times in the race when we imagined what Trump and Clinton might do to each other if they were trapped in a Thunderdome together, and Election Year almost literally gives us that scenario. There was an undercurrent of violence in this election like none I can remember, and it was carried out between supporters of the candidates if not the candidates themselves.
But what brought me to tears was a moment that showed us what Senator Roan was fighting for, and a knowledge that the real world "Senator Roan" had already lost that fight.
Midway through the movie, Roan and her fiercely loyal bodyguard (Frank Grillo's Leo Barnes) make their way down to an underground bunker where a contingent of the opposition are caring for Purge victims and providing a safehouse for those dregs of society considered most likely to be targets. Around this room are a selection of tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free -- the kind America once welcomed with open arms, but now seems to want to shut out.
Someone observes, and I'm paraphrasing, "These are the people the NFFA want to purge because they don't want to have to care for them any longer."
Up to this point, I'd felt emotions welling up in me on a couple occasions, prompted by the visceral sense of outrage and the intensity of the violence. But something about this moment opened the floodgates.
And I wept.
I'm not just talking about a tear trickling down my cheek. I'm talking about heaving, convulsing tears, for somewhere on the order of 30 to 45 seconds. I wept openly, and possibly only silently because my kids were watching cartoons in the other room and I didn't want to give them anything to worry about. (Having already cried in front of them once on election night.)
I sunk my face into my palm and released a torrent of tears for more than a half a minute.
I purged myself of some rotten emotions that had been stuck inside me, I guess you could say.
This movie is called American Nightmare 3: Elections in some foreign countries, I just discovered today, and indeed, this election was a nightmare. Somehow, in some way, the wrong candidate, the candidate who should have been disqualified from contention dozens of times, won. Somehow, a happy ending that seemed like it was beyond question was lost into the void.
And in that moment, the moment when my tear ducts were overcome, I realized that we had voted in a man who wants to eliminate his enemies, not by actually killing them perhaps, but by depriving themselves of the services they need to live, which is effectively the same thing. All because he thinks he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and believes others should do the same.
And because those people most in need might vote for his enemy.
I don't know if I really believe a person has been elected who will bring about a new dark age of fascism in America. In fact, I think it's pretty unlikely. But I do know that the bad guy won, and that was something I had mourned in tears only once before.
Suddenly, surprisingly, I was compelled to do it again. In part because I knew this movie was going to give us the happy ending that real life had not given us, and what a goddamn shame that was.
And that's why I hold this movie in what seems like a ridiculous level of regard right now. I can't remember the last time a movie made me sob. I mean, movies force a trickling tear down my cheek with some regularity, probably more so now that I'm a parent. But this movie wracked me with sobs, sobs I could not recover from for what seemed like an eternity.
The second time I cried was over the death of one of the characters we'd come to know and love in this movie. Know, yes, and love, yes. It's not easy for movies to do that, since they have so little time at their disposal. TV shows have a much easier task in that regard.
But what this movie also did was to give us a cross-section of heroes, representing multiple races and genders, all banding together to fight an oppressive right-wing force that believes in purging its enemies out of existence. This resistance felt like a metaphor for the coalition that voted for Hillary Clinton, unifying despite or perhaps because of their differences, ready to win this fight. It's a fight they should have won. It's a fight they must win, one day.
But I don't know if the obvious logic that Donald Trump will lose his 2020 reelection bid is something we can bank on. We've witnessed corruption in this election, from voter intimidation at home to the interference of foreign hackers abroad, which may yet entail the hacking of voting machines. The leader of the NFFA in this movie, played by Raymond J. Barry, snaps an order at an underling to do "whatever it fucking takes" to remain in power. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a real person with that real attitude in the American right, be it Steve Bannon or the Koch brothers or someone else.
And with that kind of murderously intense dedication, maybe the multi-racial coalition really does never have a shot.
The Purge: Election Year was undoubtedly made to earn a tidy profit on a small budget and give genre fans sleazy thrills. It does do that, too. In fact, some of the most gonzo shit plays a major contributing factor in why I liked the movie as much as I did.
But what's also there, whether it needed to be or not, is a real look at our real America, exaggerating real feelings and emotions only slightly for the purposes of satire. It's incredibly smart in some of the ways it captures the anger, the determination, and the naked corruption of both the politicians (of both parties) and the people they represent. And lest you think this movie is just a liberal polemic, think again. Groups traditionally protected by a purely liberal Hollywood are portrayed negatively (a group of young black girls, for example, are some of this movie's most despicable characters), and tellingly, the same "whatever it takes" slogan is also repeated by the left. When Senator Roan hears of a plot to kill her rival, she doesn't offer any hippie dippy "all human life is precious" argument as a reason to abort the assassination. She says, simply, "If you kill him, he becomes a martyr. I lose."
This movie, with apparent ambitions so modest, reminded me that both political parties take shady paths to get where they want to go, and do tend to believe that the ends justify those icky means.
Only one party, though, wants to save those same people the NFFA seeks to eliminate on Purge night.
And that party will not be in office for at least the next four years, maybe longer.
That's what made me cry.