Purge: Election Year

The Purge series has become quite interesting as it has developed. It started with a fairly ludicrous idea, as the frame for some straightforward violence and redemption. In the second, and arguably best, instalment, it developed its own aesthetic. The idea of the Purge as a Holiday, with all the attendant outfits, language, customs and paraphernalia developed. We got a Purge look – macabre masks and make-up with a dose of creepy violence.

Rather than retread the same night of survival and personal discovery theme, Election Year takes a bold step to up the allegory and make it full on commentary on American gun fetishism, treatment of the poor, white privilege, and role of religion in politics. Elizabeth Mitchell’s Presidential hopeful is making the removal of The Purge the central theme in her campaign, and the heavily religious NFFA portray it as central to American identity. I mean, it’s no Animal Farm, but you’ll get the message here.

Such political allegory in horror used to be quite commonplace (all hail They Live!). But reading the comments on IMDB one is struck by how unaccustomed to it people are, and also how worthwhile it is. The complaints are all of “white stereotyping”. No, I’m serious, people think this is a thing to be upset about, eg:

“It would be okay if the director were able to make it more subtle, but since the movie is dumb proof, the persistent displays of “LOOK HOW WHITE PEOPLE ARE CORRUPT AND BAAAAD! LOOK HOW GOOOOOOD THESE POOR IMMIGRANTS AND DARK-SKINEED PEOPLE AAAAARE! LOOK HOW EVERYONE WHO COMMITS MURDER IS CRAZY – EXCEPT THE ONLY SANE, GOOD GUYS WHO KILL THEM.”

“White men are stereotyped to a new level. The hero is a white blonde who cares about “poor people” and uses terms like “over represented”. More poor people are heroes talk. A room full of rich people say that they need to stop the poor from destroying them- all white men, no one Jewish, no one black, no one middle eastern- just those evil white men”

“Too much of a social message in The Purge 3. I would have liked to see more of the actual purge/sci-fi itself. The film could be interpreted as a G O P vs Dem social messages.”

You get the idea. This is probably the same people who complained that casting women as Ghostbusters in the remake “ruined my childhood”. While Purge: Election Year is very far from a great film, (it is cliched, not that well acted and in the end doesn’t ask complicated questions), the absence of other popular films taking on a similar role in the current situation in the US makes it worthwhile.

Don’t Breathe

[Probably a bit SPOILERy but not too much]

This horror/thriller from the director, Fede Alverez, who did the remake of the Evil Dead (yes, I don’t know why either) uses post-recession Detroit as the backdrop for a home invasion gone wrong thriller. Three young thieves, seeking to escape Detroit, are using security keys to target houses. There is the lure of a big score at the home of a blind, ex war vet. Like last days for a police officer, we all know the ‘just one last job’ never ends well. Of course it goes wrong, and the vet isn’t quite as incapable as they’d anticipated. But neither is he as innocent and the house harbours a secret.

In this respect Don’t Breathe is very similar to 2015’s less well known Intruders. That featured someone a home invasion, someone house bound (through agoraphobia), the tables turned on the three burglars, and a secret in the basement (do all American houses have something dodgy in the basement??). Indeed, it’s not just similar but aside from a few twists, almost identical.

But it’s well shot and the tension is almost maintained at the sort of pace that makes you realise you’re hunching you shoulders in an uncomfortable manner. There’s one unpleasant, and probably unnecessary scene that seems more akin to the horror side of Alvarez’s canon. It works best instead as tightly focused thriller, and although it gets a bit laboured towards the end with one too many false endings, it’s effective and relentless.

Green Room

I watched a couple of Eli Roth films the other day (Green Inferno and Aftershock). They were unsatisfying and I found myself comparing them unfavourably to Jeremy Saulnier’s tight, believable thriller. Green Room follows a hardcore punk band who after scratching a tour get offered a gig at a neo-nazi club in the middle of a forest. They stumble across a crime scene in the eponymous Green Room, and from there both sides are locked into an escalating series of confrontations.

Where this works over Roth’s films is that the latter are situated firmly in the horror genre, while Green Room is really a thriller. A second reason is that although Roth has grown more courageous in his set up – we get an hour or so of getting to know the characters – these are people we don’t want to spend time with. They are usually rich, spoilt white kids who are being brave travelling outside of America (which they will really come to regret). Green Room has a decent level of introduction, but crucially the characters are grounded and interesting. You believe this is a punk group, their terms of reference are knowing and their music is not the embarrassing pastiche of punk that would be created by a 45 year old Hollywood scriptwriter.

The film has it flaws, there are only so many times they can escape from the green room and return to it. And one of the likeable aspects of the film is its refusal to escalate to high levels of gore, conspiracy or horror. This is how this situation might well develop, and it has the confidence not to layer levels of excess upon it. But this is also one of its weaknesses, once the audience knows the set up, we are waiting then for it to follow its path, and there is little deviation from this.

But there’s a lot to like in this film, and a good way to appreciate its qualities is to imagine how it would have turned out under Roth’s hand.

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky is a thriller that uses the Islamic extremism in Kenya as the basis for a taut, almost unbearably tense plot involving drones, local military and UK and US governments in the way the Cold War used to be an effective context. The film’s ability to make us see the reality of such conflicts and understand what ‘collateral damage’ really means in terms of people may gain some attention, but decision making is the real star of the film. In the same way The Martian was really about putting problem solving in a cinematic context, so Eye in the Sky is focused on getting us under the skin of how decisions are made in complicated environments when there is no good decision. MBA students should study this film as a group exercise.

What the film manages to convey is a sense of authenticity across all of the characters. There is no binary here, people may be operating at different places along the Hawks-Doves spectrum, even Mirren’s Hawkish Colonel is has a sense of what she believes to be the most humane decision that we can empathise with.

The last half of the film is effectively an extended adaptation on the moral dilemma: behind one door are 100 people, behind the other is your child. You can only open one door to save those behind it, which do you open? So few films go anywhere near this kind of moral complexity that it makes you realise just how rare this is. Combined with the realistic portrayal of characters throughout the different networks and you wonder why we put up with such cliched and one dimensional depictions in other thrillers. After the MBA students have finished with the film, students studying utilitarianism in moral philosophy should have a go.

If my pitch that this is a cinematic stab at John Stuart Mill hasn’t convinced you that it’s worth a watch, then I offer these two reasons also:
1) It contains the tensest bread buying sequence in cinematic history
2) It features a fitting last performance from Alan Rickman.
3) It is just over 90 minutes long. When Batman vs Superman: Who Gives a Shit and Captain America: There isn’t Really a Conflict both come in around a flabby 2.5 hours, it is refreshing to see you can get this much done in a reasonable time length.