When asked beforehand, I couldn’t quite articulate why I wanted to see The Purge: Election Year. I’ve never seen the first two Purge movies, and based on the trailer Election Year looked hyper-violent and generally disturbing, not in entirely interesting ways either. If it was a horror fix I needed Netflix has plenty of under-the-radar, critically-applauded micro-budget haunted house movies which could do the trick. Or I could just see The Conjuring 2 again and re-evaluate if I judged the film too harshly last month.
But, no, I had to see Election Year. As I attempted to tell someone beforehand, it’s the type of movie I would normally dismiss offhand as “not for me,” but I felt compelled to challenge such an assumption. However, that’s only partially true. I wasn’t so much motivated by a desire to be more open-minded about the movies I see as I was hooked by Election Year‘s incredibly timely premise and potential for political commentary.
Please, movie, give me some kind of catharsis or at least a therapeutic diversion. Help me vent my frustration over the political sideshow that is the Presidential campaign, and the seemingly weekly reports of shootings and police brutality. Tap into that class warfare which fueled the Brexit, but in a far more constructive manner. Do something interesting, but not exploitative with your premise. Give us a scathing satire.
And for around 10 minutes Election Year does exactly that.
Then it’s mostly just a hyper-violent, but rather effective action movie, thankfully saved by the surprising comic presence of Mykelti Williamson (yes, Bubba from Forrest Gump).
In this fictional universe, a conservative political party (New Founding Fathers of America, NFFA) rose to power during a time of considerable civil unrest and soaring crime rates 25 years ago. In response, they created a national holiday known as the Purge. For a 12-hour period, all crime, even murder, is legal. No law officials will interfere nor will any medical facilities respond to calls for help. High-ranking members of the government are exempt and protected, though. The official party line is The Purge allows the nation to collectively get the violence out of its system on an annual basis, and thus reduces crime rates the 364 other days of the year.
This year, the Purge happens to coincide with a hotly contested Presidential campaign. Political activists like Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) and the opposition party’s Presidential candidate, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) are lobbying to end The Purge and not just because it is morally wrong. It also disproportionately impacts the poor and sick. By their way of thinking, The Purge is secretly used as a means of population control and lines the NFFA’s pockets with millions of dollars they would otherwise have spent on healthcare and other social programs. The NFFA blinds people to those true goals by wrapping themselves in the flag and preaching patriotism. This is especially egregious to Bishop and Roan since they are both Purge survivors, Bishop having appeared in the prior two movies and Roan losing her entire family in Election Year‘s opening scene set 15 years in the past.
The last film’s protagonist Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) returns as the head of Senator Roan’s security detail. He’s quickly forced into action when the NFFA wastes no time on Purge night in coming after Roan, who sheltered in place in her home instead of heading to a more secure facility as per Barnes’ advice. Barnes and Roan are forced to run out into the night, pursued from behind by NFFA mercenaries but also attacked from all directions by the random crazies (most of whom are dressed up in USA-themed costumes due to it being the election year) taking part in the purge.
Meanwhile, convenience store owner Joe Dixon (Williamson) and his clerk Marcos, an idealistic immigrant recently granted citizenship (Joseph Julian Soria), are forced to guard the store from looters when he’s unable to pay his newly hiked purge insurance premiums. Their friend Laney (Betty Gabriel), a former gang member and legendary purger, routinely checks in on them from her rescue van, attempting to atone for her past sins by saving as many lives as she can. Luckily, most purgers refuse to attack rescue workers, but there’s nothing stopping them from doing so.
Eventually, Barnes and Roan meet up with Joe and friends, and their combined fight for survival takes a political turn when they cross paths with Dante and his mini-army.
As I watched this plot unfold, somewhat relieved to learn you don’t need to have seen either of the prior Purge movies to keep up with the third one, I kept overthinking things. I grasped for some larger symbolic or metaphorical meaning of the purge. I composed a mini-essay in my head contrasting the subtext of The Purge with the subtext of the slasher films of the 80s, intrigued by the way Purge speaks to modern anxieties in a more economic and political context whereas the slasher films were a more moralistic response to the sexual revolution and women’s liberation (or so Siskel & Ebert argued). I paid special attention to the racial composition of the cast, noting how the street-level characters are all played by actors of color and the only good white people around are Barnes and Roan. I noted the hints of Do the Right Thing between Joe and several of his unruly customers (the leader of whom delivers the most annoyingly bad performance of any actor in any movie I’ve seen this year).
But then the old, white man (Raymond J. Barry) head of the NFFA used his first lines of the film to repeatedly refer to Senator Roan as a cunt (and not a continuing source of inspiration, ala South Park). He used similarly uncultured words to describe Dante.
That’s when I told myself to stop trying to take this movie so seriously. It’s not subtle, nor does it want to be. For example, the purge won’t simply be left as some kind of metaphorical stand-in for all the ways in which the self-righteous people of the world are often the most hypocritical. No, instead, Senator Roan’s NFFA opponent in the Presidential campaign will deliver an over the top speech in the manner of a southern preacher in which he flat out states, “We are not hypocrits! We are good, loyal Americans!” (or something to that effect). Then he kills a hostage, and appears to have a full body orgasm in the process.
By the end, Election Year nods its head toward political unrest, anomie and apathy, gang warfare and even immigration. The world exists on the tip of a razor’s edge, and one of the heroes starts into a Ghostbusters 2-esque “You know, I just can’t believe things have gotten so bad in this city that there’s no way back” speech. Then the car they’re in at that moment is rammed out of nowhere, and they’re suddenly dodging a hailstorm of bullets from a nearby helicopter. That type of forward-momentum action always takes precedent.
So, if it’s depth you want Election Year is a bit too surface level, but if you want to watch an effective action movie with some likable characters fighting the power then Election Year is surprisingly satisfying. In playing essentially a Hollywood-pretty stand-in for Hilary Clinton, Elizabeth Mitchell is perfectly fine as Senator Roan, and Frank Grillo delivers a no-nonsense turn as a taciturn action hero type. However, the true life in the story comes from Joe, Marcos and Laney, who combine to put a face on the true victims of the purge, forced to protect their home due to predatory insurance companies and a corrupt ruling class. Plus, Joe is a riot, delivering one hilarious one-liner after another (e.g., “There’s a group of large negroes heading our way, and we’re sitting here like a big ole bucket of fried chicken”), some of which make you laugh even as you think, “Wait, was that kind of racist?”
53% – “It isn’t particularly subtle, but The Purge: Election Year‘s blend of potent jolts and timely themes still add up to a nastily effective diversion.”