Film Review: The Purge: Election Year

Director: James DeMonaco

R | 1h 49min | Action, Horror, Sci-Fi | 26 August 2016 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

You can’t deny that the 3rd entry in the Purge franchise has arrived at a propitious time. With Donald Trump seemingly upending the rules of American elections by proving demagoguery and extreme right-wingism still has a substantial audience in American, the Purge: Election Year’s backdrop of a fevered election campaign in a dystopian near-future US, where all crime has been made legal for one night of the year, feels apt as hell. Despite this, director James DeMonaco’s so-so effort suffers from the same flaws as the previous installments, in that the “1% vs the 99%” allegorical concept underpinning the series is way more interesting and provocative than the onscreen execution.

In the alternate America of the Purge series, an extreme right-wing government class known as the Founding Fathers seized control following economic and social collapse, installing, as one of its methods of control of the populace (but marketed in religious terms as a kind of purification) an annual night of ‘purging’. During the 12 hour period of Purge Night, all crime including murder is legal, with the only exceptions being the government elite. Though the two previous Purge films made it clear that a handful of critics of this disturbing ritual had (correctly) analysed that the real purpose of the Purge was to kill off the lower classes –who were usually too poor to afford protection during the legalized slaughter- the governing class had never been seen to have faced any real organized resistance. That backdrop added a level of admirable gloom to the Purge series, so it is odd that the plot of this third film works to undermine that by showing that, incredibly, such a fascistic ruling class actually still allows elections. Not only that, but the main character in the film, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), is shown as the film opens to be closing in on the Founding Father’s incumbent in the polls. Her core pledge is to end Purge night by executive fiat.

With the film hobbled already by this counterintuitive plot element, it doesn’t help that it so rarely delivers on the kind of incisive commentary, brutal action and nightmarish visions of societal self-destruction that you would hope for. Things really kick off when Senator Roan and her chief of security- former cop Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), returning from the second Purge film – have to go on the run on election eve as dark government forces hire white supremacist special forces team to assassinate the senator. Fleeing from her election HQ, Barnes and Roan are left stranded on the streets of Los Angeles during the deadliest and most terrifying night of the year, just as the Founding Fathers alter the Purge rules so that even tier-1 government figures can be killed.  Though the political commentary is rarely very subtle, there is still something admirable about how the plot connects Barnes and Roan to a mixed Afro-American and Latino group of resistance fighters early on (dominated by Mykelti Williams as a world weary but badass black deli owner), the thrust being that if there is one silver lining to come out of the Purge, it is that only by dropping racial boundaries have the disadvantaged been able to survive.

But someone like John Carpenter, who popularized this kind of high-concept/low-budget politically aware B-movie in the 80s, would have fronted his film with more charismatic leads (this film really needs a Kurt Russell), and would probably have better crafted a series of visual tableaux better able to convey a sense of the bloody madness of Purge night, carried out on a citywide scale. This film feels like its scope exceeded both the budget as well as the imagination, with the Washington DC backdrop looking oddly empty for a city supposedly in the throes of legalized insanity, and the fight scenes coming off as a bit tame. Maybe only a long-running TV show could truly explore the vast range of psychological and social effects of living in society knowing that – for one night of the year – you could satisfy every urge and avenge every slight.

Film Review: The Purge: Election Year
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