By now, we know what to expect when it comes to the low-budget, high-concept, and eminently profitable Purge series.
Or do we?
The 2013 original, propelled to a financial success by a brilliant ad campaign, wasn’t the chaotic mainstream snuff film its premise promised. Instead, writer-director James DeMonaco (who’s been at the helm for each installment so far) chose to tell his story – wherein 12 hours are set aside for United States citizens to engage in a murder free-for-all – within the framework of a home-invasion flick, forcing a wealthy family (including Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) into an Assault on Precinct 13-styled fight for survival. The film wasn’t without its moments, but was also hobbled by missed opportunities and mixed messages. In the end, it was effectively made yet too obvious to truly land its premise.
The first sequel (subtitled Anarchy) also made promises it couldn’t keep: while expanding the scope to a major metropolitan area seemed rife with potential suspense, gonzo violence, and – come on now! – catharsis. DeMonaco did right in giving rising character actor Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) a meaty lead role as Leo, a flawed hero on a Mad Max-styled quest for vengeance. While the inclusion of a radical group countering “Purge Night” was an interesting wrinkle, DeMonaco couldn’t play it subtly, resorting to rote dialog to emphasize the obvious.
Based on this, I went into Election Year with the low expectations of a matinee on a day when nothing interesting was playing.
Chalk it up to reduced expectations.
Chalk it up to the real-world horror that is the American election cycle.
Or, heck: chalk it up to the fact that DeMonaco seems to finally be realizing his baby’s potential, and is gradually improving as a writer and director.
Whatever the case may be, what surprises about Election Year is that it’s actually pretty good. Not perfect – not even close – but easily the best of the series thus far.
It still suffers from the flaws of its predecessors – over-the-top performances (apparently, Purging brings out everyone’s inner Nicolas Cage); too much on-the-nose expository dialog; and a pace hamstrung by an extended run time (a B movie should run no longer than 90 minutes, regardless of how noble its intentions).
Wait – noble?
Despite the paradoxical gruesomeness and “what if?” curiosity of the premise itself, the entirety of The Purge series has possessed a through-line of altruism and nobility. The first film focused on the preservation of the family unit in the face of chaos (and, ironically, examined two opposing sides of the “white privilege” coin); Anarchy showed Leo’s reluctance to submit to his inner savage, redeeming himself by helping others; in Election Year, the earnestness reaches its apex: Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) – whose family was slaughtered in the Purge years earlier – makes a run for President while vowing to end America’s favored night of murder and mayhem. In the time that’s passed since Anarchy, Leo has found a lucrative job as chief of Roan’s security detail.
Others have written of DeMonaco’s attention to creating a racially integrated film with Election Year, and one of its successes is doing so without seeming pandering or obligatory. Among the blue-collar citizenry, we have neighborhood shopkeep Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and former neighborhood badass-turned-Purge-Night-ambulance-driver Laney (Betty Gabriel). These characters are arguably given as much screen time as Leo and Roan, and their arcs are crucial to the working-class politics of the film (Joe’s an example of the small-business-owning American Dream; Marcos, an immigrant from Mexico City, saw and did horrible things to survive; and Laney is empathetic while knowing when to pull the trigger). In an industry marred by its own #HollywoodSoWhite bias, seeing these individuals given equal screen time is refreshing, and lends further credence to horror’s ability to break down walls in ways other genres cannot.
While Roan is presented as the unequivocal voice of reason, neither she nor Leo are indestructible, and the manner in which they interact with this neighborhood collective offers admirable insight into the way human beings band together in times of crisis. Similarly, when they meet up with a resistance group (who appraise the Purge as a way for the wealthy to target the poor), an assassination plot emerges that tests Roan’s own political ethos. (Don’t worry – the film is obedient enough to the mechanics of action and horror that the weight of such decisions doesn’t detract from Election Year‘s pulp-novel feel.)
This isn’t George Romero once again pontificating on why people suck – it’s a rejection of the cynicism of a “dog eat dog” world and an embrace of, “if we’re all fucked, we may as well improve our odds by being fucked together.” As a vessel for (ours, the viewer’s) entertainment, The Purge is something that could easily corkscrew into a vortex of pointless violence and sadism; but DeMonaco uses it as a backdrop to take aim at the type of ass-backwards society that would ever allow a professional troll like Donald Trump to be nominated for President. There is outrage in Election Year (isn’t there always?), but also a desire to understand the mentalities and motives of both sides, and that’s something we see less in the media coverage of actual elections, let alone a genre film based around the premise.
While The Purge remains a series primarily designed to recoup budgets at the box office, DeMonaco peppers his narrative with well-taken ironies and thematic asides, from the homemade drone that pursues Leo and Roan; the bored, sense-of-entitlement suburban teens who terrorize Joe because of his refusal to let them shoplift a candy bar; the moneyed foreigners who descend upon DC on Purge Night – appropriating the iconic visages of Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty – to engage in “murder tourism” (a swipe at the U.S.’s forced presence in other countries, whether from a political or military standpoint); and the New Founding Fathers’ use of a covert mercenary squad – whose uniforms sport an obvious mix of Confederate Flag and swastika patches – to kidnap Roan is as subtle as a sledgehammer, but also kind of necessary. In the not-so-far-off future these films represent, seeing where we are (in reality) versus where we could be, should be enough to jolt us into rationalization and reconsider our path…before it’s too late!
Perhaps most telling of DeMonaco’s social commentary is the annual NFF ritual which takes place in a cavernous old church: with a dismal blue-and-gray color palette, he presents the largely vacant sanctuary as the last vestige of an outdated, outmoded way of thinking, inhabited by a few pews of chanting, lanyard-wearing “members only” cultists (reminiscent of the Five Points Trinity in Red State). While the liturgies may be silly variants on old church standards, the “message” – delivered by candidate Minister Edwige Owens (Kyle Secor) – is brought to life with the bombast of a televangelist riling up a packed auditorium. Upon my first viewing, I found Secor’s performance extremely overdone, but in hindsight, his wild-eyed, over-enunciated, and spittle-festooned portrayal is right on the money.
With charisma to burn, he’s telling a captive audience every heinous thing they want to hear, and they love him for it. Hmmm, sounds familiar…
No wonder the end credits roll in sync with David Bowie’s wonderful paranoid anthem, “I’m Afraid of Americans.”
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 6 out of 10