As far back as The Loved One (1965) – or maybe even Meet John Doe (1941) or Gabriel Over the White House (1933) – it became obvious that America presented satirists with a real problem by upping the excess whenever anyone tried to caricature or skewer it. It’s become a standing joke that it’s harder and harder to tell real reports of trends or incidents from the kind of story they run in The Onion … and Tom Lehrer said that political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace prize. And then Donald Trump was elected, kicking the red, white and blue nightmare into another overdrive.
Written and directed by Sam Levinson, this is a brash, cynical, stylish, sexy, hypocritical and superficial movie which embodies everything it criticises and is pretty much okay with that. Its thesis is that everyone is complicit, and that includes the audience too as narrator Lily (Odessa Young) – a high school bitch princess in Salem, Mass (nope, no subtlety here) – starts the film with a rapid-fire montage of trigger warnings before telling the backstory of how she and her three besties (in matched red PVC raincoats) came to be the town pariahs. Part of the frisson is that the girls – trans Bex (Hari Nef), black Em (Abra) and extra blonde Sarah (Suki Waterhouse) – really are awful people, but aren’t actually guilty of the big thing the howling mob of Purge cosplay loons assume they’ve done. Lily is seeing uptight hunk Mark (Bill Skarsgard), but has noticed his reluctance to go down on her – and is sexting back and forth with over-the-street fortyish family man neighbour (Joel McHale), a relationship which is entirely digital. Her peer group all live in a social media bubble, but hold back key details – Bex has hooked up with straight-affecting athlete Diamond (Danny Ramirez), who doesn’t want his teammates to know about it … the cheerleader instagram star (Bella Thorne) has circulated nude photos of her best friend (Maude Apatow).
Then, mystery hacker Er0stratus leaks the family values Mayor’s private photos, exposing his transvestite private life, and the politician commits suicide – unmourned by most, including Bex who has no sympathy for the closet case who campaigned against LGBTQIA folk. However, more leaks follow – and the less-obviously hypocritical Principal (Colman Domingo) is hounded out of his job when a few naked photos of his child in the bath get him labelled a pedophile … then Er0stratus uploads half the town’s secrets, and everything comes out, turning the town into a rioting collection of lynch mobs and fleeing pariahs, with an anarchic acting-out IRL of fantasies previously cached on desktops. This is too in love with its touchstone films – we clocked Massacre at Central High, Heathers, John Waters, Tragedy Girls and ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’, not to mention a few westerns about mob justice and historical dramas about witch hunts – to play it straight for more than the few microseconds of poignance or heroism found in the midst of the escalating chaos.
Unlikely as his last reel ‘doll squad’ rampage of revenge might be, Levenson shows more skill in constructing suspense and horror sequences than any of the megaphone men who’ve handled a Purge … there are standout sequences, including a mass home invasion shot in the single camera peeping tom style of Brian DePalma or Dario Argento … a woman-in-peril long take as Lily takes refuge with the person who turns out to be the last man she should put her trust in … and a massive face-off/shoot-out on Main Street which provides a rousing climax if not a cheery finish. Points are made, but lessons will not be learned.