Turn to any television network over the next few months and the height for political dissension in America will be at its most aggressive level. It’s during these specific times that my frustration with the political machine turns the most negative and disheartened, making a film like The Purge: Election Year seem more true-to-life than a work of fantasy. It’s this aspect, along with a clever marketing campaign utilized during the election year, which makes this third installment in the franchise far more interesting than it otherwise might have been.
Social commentary in genre films is nothing new, George A. Romero, director of Night of the Living Dead, has done it exceptionally well in his zombie trilogy. While The Purge: Election Year squanders many opportunities to provide insight through exploitation, its moments of connective social commentary are effectively startling and stimulating. Director James DeMonaco, who has directed all three of the films in the franchise, has grown his dystopian vision from a small home invasion film to a full-blown city of chaos, and finally into a global conspiracy at the highest levels.
The Purge, a night where all criminal activity—including murder—is allowed, is a coveted right for Americans, but also a death sentence for those not privileged enough to afford protection. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who has a tragic connection with the Purge, is now the leading presidential contender with a strong anti-Purge stance. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), returning from the second installment of the trilogy, is now in charge of protecting Senator Roan so that she can live to see Election Day. Members of The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA), who established the annual Purge event, conspire to eliminate the Senator. This leads Leo and Senator Roan, along with a market owner named Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), into the streets of Washington D.C. on the deadliest night of the year.
The Purge was a cat-and-mouse home invasion film that very quickly became a by-the-numbers slasher. The most interesting aspect of that film was wondering what the world looked like outside of the barricaded door. The Purge: Anarchy worked significantly better than the original film because it featured an expanded world and embraced a more extravagant exploitive attitude, making it feel more like something made by The Cannon Group in the 1980s.
The Purge: Election Year takes a little from both of these films while attempting to add some socially aware narrative points that often work best when utilized as imagery rather than banter. Whenever the group is journeying across the city, the film makes a point to display the madness happening in the streets. Violent scenes emulating the progression of violence throughout history are displayed. These depictions are unsettling because the acts are so recognizable; whether it’s the use of guillotine in an alleyway, the fighting pit of street gladiators with swords, or the hanged corpses swinging from trees, these moments reflect the bedlam of another scene involving a bloodstained Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately, these effectively startling scenes are undercut by a narrative that never gets a grasp of what it wants to say, bearing the sentiment that violence is bad only to then utilize violence to make amends. The film would have done better to completely embrace its exploitation and thought-provoking imagery, allowing the audience to make connections far deeper than the simplified back-and-forth justifications of political figures, one yelling “peace” and another yelling “purge and purify.”
The Purge: Election Year never finds that middle ground where it can be an entertaining exploitation fantasy and also a reflective commentary on the reality that we live in. Some may contest that the latter is unfairly asking too much from a film like this, and I may even agree with that assessment, because calling your film Election Year provokes the sentiment that one will make their decision based on external extravagance while others will make their decision based on what is being represented underneath. In either case, happy election year.
Movie Score: 2.5/5