With The Purge and its subsequent sequel Anarchy, writer-director James DeMonaco has built two middling movies upon a horrific foundation of an America where for one night every year all crime is legal. In the mythology of The Purge, this function not only eliminates the lower rungs of society but also operates as a form of national cleansing, a moral boost through state-sanctioned murder. For the pulpy foundation of B-movie schlock that these movies are built upon, none of The Purge movies to date have done much with the inherent political aspects of its premise, often paying a line or two of lip service to societal issues or political ideology. With the previous two entries, we’ve been introduced enough to brutal violence and creepy masks. There was only question looming over the third entry in the series, The Purge: Election Year: Can this series bring its political aspects to fruition? Short answer: no.
The makers of The Purge: Election Year were handed a gift with an America that is seemingly on the verge of its very own prolonged purge, and the marketing campaign picked up on that, buying advertisements during some of the primary debates. Though Election Year doesn’t have much brains behind the mayhem, it still has enough shock and schlock to be consistently entertaining. Being dumb and not very interested in political thought hasn’t really hurt anyone in 2016, so why should it be any different at the movie theater.
The America of Election Year is also facing a sharp divide politically as the country is facing a choice for the nation highest office with Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an idealist candidate running on an anti-Purge platform, and Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), the candidate from the incredibly pro-Purge New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). 18 years prior, in the film’s opening scene, a young Charlie must watch as her family is killed by a masked sadist with his own customized “Purge playlist” (which includes T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk” in an odd musical juxtaposition). As a political crusader, Charlie has earned the loyalty of her bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), whose own personal past with the Purge has left him passionate about its abolishment.
The entrenched power of the NFFA have made adjustments to this year’s Purge in order to use the 12 hours of mayhem as a means to eliminate their political rivals – mainly Senator Roan and her rugged bodyguard. A mercenary group of neo-Nazis raid the Senator’s home and are thwarted by Leo’s relentless paranoia, setting the presidential candidate loose on the streets during the most dangerous night of the year.
Elsewhere in Washington D.C., shop owner Joe Dixon (a scene stealing Mykelti Williamson) opts to defend his own store when his insurance carrier raises the premiums on his Purge coverage. Joe is given assistance from his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), a Mexican immigrant capable of dealing with the Purge because, as he says, “every day in Juarez is like the Purge.” Meanwhile their friend Laney (Betty Gabriel) drives an ambulance around town, providing aid as a form of penance for her past as a well-known Purger. It’s not long before all the characters intersect and team up with Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), a violent revolutionary who wants to punish the perpetrators of the Purge. It all culminates in a showdown during the NFFA’s annual Midnight Purge Mass, a grotesque combination of religious devotion and political demagoguery.
In most aspects, The Purge: Election Year is simply a rehash of Anarchy with a better supporting cast and a cleaner visual presentation. Despite trying to place its events against a political backdrop, it really boils down to a collection of characters trying to navigate the streets during the Purge. And the same dramatic shortcoming sneak their way into the more palatable Election Year, with DeMonaco determined to keep the film’s tension working on an even keel throughout – with one exception, it’s not until the film’s climax that any of the main characters are confronted with actual physical harm. Everything feels incredibly low stakes even though a nation’s soul lies in the balance of the movie’s events. All of the film’s jolts come straight from startling jump cuts with a blast of sound emphasizing some inconsequential burst of movement.
There are bits of flavoring that make Election Year more robust than its predecessors, like a news report highlighting the “murder tourists” who fly to America to participate in the Purge. The same is true with the various contraptions and forms of death that populate the streets, each fascinating as a tidbit but never enough to expand this dystopian America beyond the surface level. Aside from bookend scenes, there’s no attempt to take us further into the entrenched power of the NFFA, something that would provide much-needed depth to this world.
Moments of pleasure that are stemmed from Election Year come from the film’s shocking depictions of brutality which are complimented by the film’s stark production design with outlandish costumes and masks covered in gore. (I still can’t figure out why Purgers wear masks considering all crime is legal. It’s not like there’s going to be consequences if their faces are seen.) If it’s not a moment violence that garners a reaction, the film’s sense of humor (both intentional and unintentional) is the other saving grace. A scene where Mykelti Williamson is able to quell a gang of Purgers by employing his “Crip whistle” is a funnier moment than in most of this year’s comedies. Newcomer Brittany Mirabilé gives The Purge: Election Year’s most spirited performance as a candy obsessed Purger decked out in blood-soaked schoolgirl clothes. She captures the over-the-top spirit of the movie even if the character’s dedication to candy is fairly confusing.
The Purge: Election Day is still the best of the series, though that is rather faint praise. Unfortunately, Election Day is unable to tap into the series’ horror roots and routinely opts to be a rather conventional shoot ‘em up at some inopportune moments. Though a stronger director than the last time around, James DeMonaco still isn’t a strong director when it comes to action, and the decision to have the film conclude with prolonged shootouts undermines the strengths of its creator. The Purge: Election Day should please the fans of this series, but I’ve held out hope that The Purge series would finally capture its political undertones into a scathing satire of ultraviolence and I left fairly disappointed. Three movies into the series and the fact is a political awakening is never going to happen in the world of The Purge. Dumb, politically apathetic, violent, and grotesque, The Purge: Election Day is actually a pretty accurate portrayal of American politics in 2016, and much less horrifying than any televised debate.
The Purge: Election Year
The best of The Purge movies, The Purge: Election Year is remarkably dumb and lacking in political sophistication — an appropriately awful representation of American politics in 2016.