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Review: The Purge: Election Year (2016)

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Directed by: James DeMonaco

Premise: The third film in The Purge series. A senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) campaigns for the presidency with a promise to end Purge Night, a holiday in which all crime, including murder, is legal. The powers that be attempt to assassinate their political opponent on Purge Night.

What Works: The Purge: Election Year is the rare sequel that is better than the original film and in fact this is the best of the three entries in the series. The original picture was a home invasion movie and the second film, Anarchy, opened up the story world amid a survive-the-night story. Election Year combines elements of the previous Purge stories, in several cases doing them better, and delivers a mix of horror and action. But Election Night is also the first Purge film to fulfill the promise of the concept. The Purge movies are political allegories about the crisis in 21st century capitalism in which the physical violence is a metaphor of economic violence and the filmmakers of Election Year quit skirting around the issue and throw themselves into the political possibilities. The third Purge film concerns a senator, played by Elizabeth Mitchell, who is running for president on a promise to end the annual holiday. Her political opposition hires mercenaries to kill the senator on Purge Night but she is defended by a body guard played by Frank Grillo, reprising his role from the second movie. After the senator’s safe house is ambushed, Mitchell and Grillo’s characters go on the run and come into contact with an armed resistance movement that plans to use the violence of Purge Night for their own political ends. That results in a debate about the ethics of violence that makes Election Year is a little more complex than the other Purge films. This movie also enhances the racial and socioeconomic subtext of the original movie, making it explicit that the poor and people of color suffer disproportionately from the laissez-faire violence of Purge Night. And in that respect, the filmmakers of The Purge: Election Year have made a movie that captures the zeitgeist in much the same way that George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead embodied the anxieties of 1968 and John Carpenter’s They Live satirized the corporate takeover of American culture in the 1980s.

What Doesn’t: As a political allegory, The Purge: Election Year is a little too blunt for its own good. The movie has very little nuance. Where District 9 and the original Planet of the Apes slightly disguised their political messages, Election Year is extremely obvious about everything and the allegory relies on blunt symbols. The primary villains of Election Year are mercenaries contracted to kill Elizabeth Mitchell’s character and they are covered with white power tattoos. The tattoos make it easy for the audience to identify them as villains and to hate them. This is indicative of a fundamental problem with the way Election Year deals with its central moral problem. Inherent to the concept of The Purge movies—and integral to the conflict of Election Year—is that this holiday debases society, unleashing the evil parts of ourselves and corrupting otherwise good people. There was some gradation in the previous Purge movies but that’s mostly absent from Election Year. The core audience of Election Year may be disappointed by the lack of creative kill scenes. The concept invites Saw-esque torture scenarios but the violence of Election Year is mostly run of the mill gun violence. The movie also has some toe-curlingly bad dialogue spoken by an African American shopkeeper played by Mykelti Williamson. The character is clearly intended to be comic and likable but the lines Williamson is given backfire on the movie and undermines its otherwise progressive racial message.

Bottom Line: The Purge: Election Year is a flawed movie but it is also an effective piece of action filmmaking and a relatively smart political allegory. This is something all too rare in the theatrical market place: an entertaining movie that actually has something provocative to say.

Episode: #604 (July 24, 2016)