Friday, October 30, 2020

The Purge Movies: Who Will Survive In America?

 NYTimes |  I loathe the idea of a topical movie. The process of filmmaking doesn’t even really allow for it. A tight turnaround from idea to distribution is two years. If you started writing a screenplay when the N.F.L. made the rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, you would be wrapping up the edit right around the time Minneapolis began to burn. To be on time, you have to think years ahead, or else have an intuitive understanding of the history and form of a society.

“The Purge” is always on time. The franchise, created by James DeMonaco, operates around a simple but provocative premise: After years of rising crime and societal breakdown, a quasi-fascist government is swept into power promising to restore peace by instituting an annual bloodletting — one night when all crime is legal. Each entry finds a different group of Americans just before the purge is set to begin. It’s a tidy narrative conceit promising violence and a ticking clock. That it has been a wildly successful series even though it dumps its main characters — generally played by semi-recognizable TV actors — with each iteration is shocking enough. What’s more impressive is that it manages to do it in the tradition of the best B movies: They are cheap and willing to wallow in the muck, and consequently less likely to lie about the violence that underpins American law and order.

Although they’re rarely mentioned in the same breath, it’s notable that the franchise came from Blumhouse, the same company behind “Get Out.” It has put together a string of projects whose animating principle is asking “Who will survive in America?” These movies commit to portraying our society in a way that finely calibrated awards-season films rarely do. Oscar bait’s great sin is not artistic pretension; it’s a lack of curiosity. We have developed a tradition of quality for our big “message” films — well shot, well acted, well made, redemptive and toothless. The better fare is praised for humanizing its characters, as though the realization that the working class also falls in love, faces disappointment and makes meaning were some sort of mind-bending epiphany. In these movies, a few good men can always outrun a history of violence. Realism reigns over the art form, yet it keeps returning to the same story: “Things might be bad, but they’re getting better all the time.” In the real world you might ask: “For whom have things been getting better?”