“The Purge: Election Year” fails to elevate the franchise.
“The Purge: Election Year” is written and directed by James DeMonaco. It stars Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Edwin Hodge, and Kyle Secor.
When the first trailers came out for the original Purge I thought they were hilarious. The premise seemed dumb, like they’d worked backwards from a standard home invasion thriller screenplay to a conceit that made it spooookier. The more I think about it though, the more I realize that premise of the Purge movies is kind of amazing, incredibly rich with un-mined potential. For those unfamiliar with these films, the concept is simple: for one night a year, all crime is legal (“including murder” we’re always helpfully reminded). I feel like with a premise that juicy you have no excuse to make a bad film. As Tony Shalhoub says in Barton Fink, “what do you need, a roadmap?”
The first movie is pretty okay for what it is. It’s a reasonably effective home invasion thriller. The problem is it wastes its peach of a premise on a story that doesn’t require it. Its sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, is fairly bad by comparison, but nonetheless deserves credit for attempting to actually explore the premise and avoids being a re-tread of the original. It also doubles down on the first film’s meager stabs at critiquing classism. It’s pretty shallow and poorly executed but at least they made the effort.
If Anarchy successfully differentiated itself from its predecessor, then the latest film in the series, Election Year fails to do so. In many ways, it feels like a repeat of the last film. There are new elements in play, but they all fall short in one way or another.
The film pays frequent lip service to political themes without following through on them to form a coherent statement. There are numerous instances of some pretty intense, politically-loaded imagery (an anti-purge poster early in the film has a variation on “hands up, don’t shoot,” villainous soldiers wear gear adorned with confederate flags, there’s a lynching scene). None of this holds together. All of these moments feel as though they were thrown into the film to provoke a reaction rather than advance the themes or provide actual commentary, which makes the use of these charged symbols feel a bit irresponsible.
On a similarly troubling note, the film frequently indulges in bursts of cathartic, righteous violence. It takes pleasure in the violent deaths of its villains. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just feels so thematically off in this context, seeing as our heroes make frequent pronouncements about how the purge is a Bad Thing That Must Be Stopped. The function of the purge, remember, is catharsis through violence. The film is indulging in the very thing it is condemning. Say what you will about the first movie, its message of anti-violence is borne out by the story. Election Year aims for a similar message in its third act, but it rings false after all the carnage we’ve already witnessed.
Ultimately, I don’t understand what the point of this film is. The obvious answer is, “well, it’s a satire!” But a satire of what?! What does the purge represent about modern America? I have no earthly idea. The film is … anti-oligarchy I guess? It just seems so easy and general. There’s no bite to this film’s politics. The audience is never challenged or implicated in the carnage onscreen.
The film has its bright spots. Both Frank Grillo and Mykelti Williamson are likable and have good screen presence. Grillo in particular is convincing as a grizzled secret service agent (even if his dialogue occasionally echoes Tim Heidecker’s in “Decker”). James DeMonaco is also able to periodically conjure a striking image (highlight: the weirdly disturbing sight of a car covered in Christmas lights swerving down a street).
I don’t think The Purge: Election Year is a particularly good movie, but I have to respect it for being relatively singular. I can’t really think of any other franchises out there like this, and for that alone it deserves praise.