‘The Purge: Election Year’ Review: Stupid Smart

'The Purge: Election Year'

Movie Rating:


It’s been quite amusing to watch ‘The Purge’ grow from a modest home invasion thriller with an intriguing concept into the major Hollywood horror franchise of our time. The series is an oddly critical and political tale of ultra violence and inequality riddled with contradictions and anger. As the title makes blatant, ‘Election Year’ sees writer/director James DeMonaco deliver his most overtly political outing, which highlights all of the strengths and limitations of the franchise in what feels like an appropriate exit note.

As far as lurid B-movies go, this series has worked rather well, maintaining a consistently good level of quality without being great. Hopefully it ends here, even though an unnecessary extra sequel or three is practically a requirement for any popular horror franchise.

This time around, the film centers on a politician, Elizabeth Mitchell’s idealistic Senator Charlie Roan, who lost her family to the Purge long ago and is now running on an election platform built around ending the bloody national holiday. Obviously, that doesn’t go over too well with the powers that be, in this case a conference room full of evil old white politicians ranting about the importance of the “have-nots” to the “haves” in one of the least subtle scenes in the film. They shift the rules for this round of the Purge so that politicians aren’t protected, purely to wipe her out.

Thankfully, Roan has Frank Grillo’s mysterious noble killing machine from the last movie as her head of security to guide her through the night. Meanwhile, the franchise also gets racialized by highlighting how most of the impoverished Americans targeted by random violence are people of color. In this case, Mykelti Williamson plays the owner of a bodega who can no longer afford his Purge insurance, so needs to guard his business by himself on the big night. He also has a friend (Betty Gabriel), who drives around on Purge night killing particularly violent purgers and tending to the wounded. Obviously, all the stories converge and not everyone will survive.

After writing and directing two ‘Purge’ movies that merely played politics as subtext, DeMonaco goes overt this time, tossing all sorts of potent images and themes at the screen, such as race inequality, cannibalistic capitalism, NRA commodification, literal class warfare, nationalism as insanity, and even a strange little subplot involving travelers coming from around the world to America strictly to purge. All the ideas are intriguing, but there just isn’t the room to satisfyingly tap into them all in what is ultimately a little bit of nasty entertainment. With the demands of action-driven genre thrills driving the flick, the dialogue frequently overstates the commentary to the point of absurdity. Characters aren’t fleshed out beyond their symbolic or genre types. It’s a bit hamfisted and it’s very clear simply watching the movie that DeMonaco didn’t quite have the financial resources to pull off everything he had in mind.

While it’s hardly a perfect movie, that’s kind of charming. There’s something enjoyably scrappy about the wildly vulgar attempts at lurid entertainment and righteous angry commentary baked into ‘The Purge: Election Year’. The movie is rooted in a similar brand of rage as the purgers themselves, only from the opposite side of the political spectrum. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s relevant, and short of including some “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, it’s pretty contemporary as well.

The cast is better than this type of horror movie normally gets, even if the characters aren’t deep. The wacko Halloween carnival aesthetic of purge violence remains compelling, and many of the walk-by images of carnage are as potent as any action at the center. DeMonaco is no master stylist, but he’s gotten better over the series and the movie makes a fairly strong impression visually, with the crudity offering a certain aesthetic all its own. Even the awkward contradiction of the film’s anti-violence message in a movie sold specifically to an audience with bloodlust offers an interesting aspect of these movies. The series is often as interesting for the unintended talking points it inspires as anything built into the movies themselves, and that kind of adds to the appeal.

Admittedly, this threequel doesn’t quite top ‘The Purge: Anarchy’, which will likely always be the highlight of the franchise. That flick played action/horror thrills first with its screaming politics around the edges. This one shifts the balance in a way that likely won’t appeal to the target audience in the right way, but you’ve still got to admire the ambition. ‘The Purge’ feels like one of those horror franchises that will grow in stature in hindsight when it can be viewed as a big, loud and bloody period piece. For now, it’s just nice that the most successful horror franchise kicking around multiplexes actually has something to say, no matter how overblown.

It would be great if things wrapped up here, and DeMonaco certainly seemed to write the script to be a finale. However, maybe letting in another filmmaker with a slightly different perspective and a little more directorial flair could finally deliver a ‘Purge’ movie as strong as the logline. Regardless, it’s impressive that this franchise continues to work and bloodthirsty horror fans should be pleased that Universal (the studio built on the back of classic monsters) still tries to be Hollywood’s leading force in the horror genre, for better or worse.

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