A recent TV ad promoted The Purge: Election Year as being the one that “trumps” the two previous Purge movies. Message received. In this election year that has shattered any and all expectations in terms of what’s allowed, what’s politically correct, and the commodification of the anger of the electorate, The Purge: Election Year is the perfect anecdote. Writer/director James DeMonaco takes the series he started to its logical, and almost satirical conclusion by phrasing the latest film in a way that a lot of politicos can identify with: can the problems of America be resolved by revelling in its anger and bitterness? Not to mention it’s desire to dress up in costumes and kill people.
After 2013’s The Purge, which was an isolationist horror movie, 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy opened up the world by phrasing it like Death Wish if Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey waited for Purge night to get vengeance only to discover the value of life amidst the carnage around him. For a movie that revealed in the cynical worst expectations of the country and its people, it was bizarrely hopefully in the end when Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) decides not to Purge and kill the man that accidentally killed his son. For even during the Purge, there is grace.
Election Year looks ahead several years after that with the rise of upstart Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who lost her entire family in a Purge 15 years earlier and is now running for President on a platform to repeal the Purge. Leo, having gotten his life back together, is now Roan’s head of security, and with Purge night approaching, he’s bound and determined to make sure the senator stays safe and out of the hands of Purgers, which is a problem made more difficult when, for the first time, members of the government are declared fair game during the Purge. You think the establishment is trying to get this rogue candidate bucking the system out of the way?
DeMonaco lays it on pretty thick with the political allegory, and that’s either going to appeal to you or turn you off. Me, in another life I write about politics, so I was down for a mostly self-aware journey into the belly our collective disappointment with government authority and power. Subtextually, the idea of America’s rich and powerful using the Purge to eliminate the poor and powerless is intriguing, and while that extremist fantasy of a truth that’s fairly evident, it’s just too bad that DeMonaco is more concerned with the pageantry of the Purge than subtilely poking at this very compelling concept he’s created.
On the bright side, that pageantry is vividly and wonderfully realized thanks in no small part to favourable budgetary bump that comes from being a successful series. Strong ideas, like seeing people participate in Roman-like gladiator blood sports, and strong scenes, like the poetically disturbing sight of a woman humming “Won’t You Call Be Sweetheart” while sitting on a bus bench next to her husband’s burning body, keeps things interesting. On top of that, there’s a thrill of watching all the right people get their comeuppance in the end, you know, all the people that revel in the Purge as a chance to be vindictive and horrible for no damn good reason.
Grillo remains a compelling lead for this series as Leo who makes a rare horror movie leap and has evolved in character between films. He’s found something to throw all his training and expertise into and that’s save the Senator from a whole city full of people that want her dead on the one night of the year they can make it happen legally. Grillo and Mitchell have an interesting chemistry as two hard cases who are stubborn in their own ways, and it’s kind of interesting to see his pessimism and her optimism collide as they fight to survive.
In watching the story unfold though, DeMonaco likes to walk over the same ground he did in Anarchy when Leo and the Senator accidentally stumble upon good natured folks just looking to make it through the night. Mykelti Williamson plays deli owner Joe whose expensive Purge insurance forces him to look after his property the old-fashioned way when the night comes. As with the previous film, there’s an idealistic young person (Joseph Julian Soria) who believes that Roan’s going to change the system and the good people of America will prevail, and there’s a militant resistance leader (Edwin Hodge) that’s using the Purge to strike back at the New Founding Fathers. The players are different, but their parts are the same.
The cartoonishness of The Purge is a bit striking at times, and I don’t mean Williamson being the snarky tag along constantly caught off guard by the craziness he finds himself in, though he’s excellent in the role. If it was possible for DeMonaco to make the New Founding Fathers anymore cartoonish, I don’t know how he’d do it. The leader (played by Raymond J. Barry) seems to enjoy using the C-word to describe Roan at every opportunity, it’s like he’s a 7-year-old that just discover the word. Our heroes also are chased by mercs who are tattooed and wear the symbol of every white supremacist organization under the sun, you know, in case we needed more than one reason to hate them.
Like all Purge movies so far, Election Day walks right up to the line of being subversive but lacks something that will allow it to cross that line. What’s the point of introducing an idea like “murder tourism” if the tourists are just terrible German stereotypes that were passe after the third Die Hard? What’s the point of building an elaborate world if you’re not going to play with more parts of it? I don’t know when exactly this movie was developed, but American politics over the last several years should have offered more than enough material to undermine, but Election Days feels like we traded the sharpest possible satire for more freaks off their leash.
Having said that though, The Purge Election Year is satisfying enough, and probably delivers exactly what it needs to in order to be another successful entry in the series. The door is left ajar for further Purges in the end, but the franchise threatens to fall into the trap that so many horror movie franchises have set off before: stagnation. If The Purge is likely to continue, and it surely will, the filmmakers will need to refine the idea again to keep it fresh. For now though, I Purged myself watching Election Year, and that’s good enough for now.