The fact that we get a new film in The Purge series during Independence Day weekend of one of the most horrifying real-life election years in memory is a minor miracle. This series, which straddles the line between horror and brutal action films, has been maligned in the past for not taking advantage of its deliciously juicy premise. The Purge: Election Year might not win any of those voices over to its side but I’ll be damned if anyone wants to call this movie lacking in taking advantage of the opportunity it’s given.
For those unaware, The Purge franchise is built around the idea that our country has allowed itself to be ruled by a radical party which has instituted an annual “Purge” where, for twelve hours, all criminal activity including murder will be legal and all emergency and medical services will be suspended. Election Year picks up the series following Presidential candidate, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is running against the NFFA and their candidate, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor). Charlie runs on a platform of promised abolishment of The Purge, having been her family’s sole survivor during the events of a Purge 18 years prior. Refusing to alienate her middle/lower class constituents, Charlie stays home during this upcoming Purge and her loyal head of security, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) our hero from The Purge: Anarchy, must do anything to keep Charlie safe. Boom. Scary situation. Great premise.
The Purge: Election Year isn’t what I would call a political movie. There aren’t any crazies running around in Trump or Clinton masks just asking to be murdered. I would definitely say that, like most good horror films, Election Year is a deeply ideological movie. The distinction between “cannot” and “will not” is paramount in this case.
During the first few moments of Election Year we’re treated to the NFFA’s (New Founding Fathers of America) chairman reaffirming his parties beliefs in stating that there are those “who cannot have” and that the NFFA is there to make sure “enough” goes around to those who deserve it. This single line is the essential dichotomy between many political ideologies existing today in America and around the world. “Cannot” means that the NFFA is determined to not allow less able individuals the right to advance. “Will not” (which isn’t necessarily an argument presented in the movie but a logical and unspoken counterpoint our heroes represent, nonetheless) infers that the natural world will likely leave some without, despite the best efforts of others. Our heroes in the world of The Purge will keep putting forth their best efforts, unwilling to sacrifice the rights of individuals.
That’s the difference between this film and any other potentially fulfilling, in-universe movie one could make. This movie is trying to say something. Of course, there is probably a pretty amazing art-house version of The Purge where we really dig deep into the socio-political constructs that cause a nation like America to devolve into class-eliminating maniacs. This isn’t that film. In Election Year, we get Russian cosplayers dressed as actual American Founding Fathers being mowed down by bullets before they’re able to commit heinous crimes.
Giving a ground pulse to the film are Joe (Mykelti Williamson), Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney (Betty Gabriel) who bring their own brand of good into the chaos. The relationship between Joe and Marcos in particular is one of interracial and international intrigue. It’s a simple story of two men who just want their slice of the pie and deserve, as all Americans do, to have their shot without unwarranted obstruction. These characters breathe a bit of life into the film, which threatens to be one of otherwise high-class issues.
Election Year doesn’t rise to the pulpy genre goodness of 2014’s Anarchy. Grillo’s character this time around doesn’t have much to do other than to just keep being badass. It’s lovely to get as much of him as we do but his compelling arc from Anarchy is hard to replicate, though there are some good seeds planted for future Purge-ings should this film make some money*. There are some decent gore bits but the “scares” truly fall flat and are more telegraphed than a night at Universal’s Hollywood Horror Nights. Many conversations are stilted and the comedy likes to fall back on two or three of the same beats each time (“You’re black. I’m black. He’s Mexican. They’re white. Oh hayll naw.” You get the picture). Many of them work more than they should but it’s definitely a sore spot in a film that should just keep chugging at all costs.
*This is a Blumhouse film. It cost $10 million. It’ll make money and we’ll get another one, someway, somehow.
It isn’t the perfect Purge movie everyone clamors for each and every year. There is still so much material to be mined from this premise but Election Year takes what is most essential to our current state and grounds it within its horrifying world where anything can happen**. My argument is that this is the story the filmmakers wanted to tell and that’s the end of it. We can go out and make our own Purge movies if we really want to. The filmmakers aren’t here to please us at inception but at execution. That’s how we are meant to judge film.
**There is a great bit midway through where Joe, Marcos and Laney have to deal with what is essentially braindead millennials run amok. This is the sort of thing I’d love to see explored in future installments.
With this go-round, there are some great and even poignant moments peppered in throughout a fairly typical on-the-run film. If nothing else, see The Purge: Election Year and discover what it’s like to live in a country about to vote for a demagogue.