Written and Directed by: James DeMonaco
Starring: Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Mykelti Williamson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Keep America Great
After taking a year off, writer/director James DeMonaco returns with The Purge: Election Year, a pointedly titled sequel prominently deployed in the middle of a political hellscape that might as well prefigure the dystopia on display in this series. Seriously, if they ever decide to do The Purge: Origins, theyíll only have to make it a documentary about the past couple of years. In that time, many unseemly corners of the country have shed whatever pretenses of decorum they might have had, revealing a latent ugliness that should leave any reasonable person aghast.
A few years ago, The Purge seemed like an absurd, clumsy satire; now, it seems almost prophetic, as if DeMonaco is just holding up a funhouse mirror to the festering sores that are bleeding over into our headlines and presidential campaigns. Itís no coincidence that Election Year is the most politically charged of this trio, as it builds upon the foundation and aesthetics of the previous film and shouts more loudly and obviously from its stump.
Granted, you still do have to go with its general premise, which in a short time has become somewhat infamous as a terrific hook whose potential hasnít been fully met. Iím still not quite sure Election Year truly nails it, but itís hard to say DeMonaco doesnít really go for it this time by stepping back ever so slightly to explore the political machines behind the Purge itself. If the previous films didnít make it abundantly clear, the annual ritual is a farce designed to prey explicitly upon the lower classóin short, itís a way for The New Founding Fathers to eliminate a class of people the government would rather not waste money on.
This is the platform of Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), an idealistic young senator who survived a horrific Purge Night encounter as a teenager and has vowed to end the ritual if elected president. Naturally, the New Founding Fathers immediately conspire to murder her during the next Purge Night via a group of mercenary white supremacists. Unfortunately for them, Roan is protected by Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), a former police lieutenant who has obviously survived his share of Purge Night skirmishes in the past. Just as he was years ago, Leo is forced onto the streets, where he and Roan cross paths with a small-business owner (Mykelti Williamson) and a scrappy band of anti-Purge insurgents.
In many ways, itís fair to say that Election Year is sort of an extension of Anarchy. Where that film was a stark departure from its predecessor, this one looks to settle into the sequelís established groove. At best, this is Anarchy 2.5, only with higher stakes and a slightly bigger scope, an approach thatís perhaps disappointing for anyone hoping DeMarco would continue to expand and experiment with the formula. To be fair to him, though, Anarchy was pretty much the film everyone wanted the first to be, so you can hardly blaming him for sticking with what worksóitís just that Election Year feels a tad bit too safe at times, especially since it practically retraces the previous filmís steps beat for beat.
As such, the film continues to revel in the Purge Night festivities. Thereís no denying that DeMonaco has tapped into something thatís virtually iconic in the Purge: by now, the term itself has entered the lexicon, accompanied by signature images of unsettling masks and garish costumes. Both are on display in Election Year as DeMarcoís camera gazes upon them almost lovingly: itís obvious that heís enamored with this concept, so he indulges with stylishly shot sequences of blinged-out Purge cars and gore-soaked Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty costumes. It has the odd effect of creating an aura of cool surrounding an abhorrent blood ritual that the film supposedly disowns. An unexpected tension emerges from this: can DeMarco truly commit to killing his darling?
His answer often splits the difference. While his camera captures some horrifying images and almost invites the audience to relish in the bloodshed, he also clearly draws an obvious line, much like he did with Barnesís murder attempt at the climax of the previous film (I really canít stress enough just how much Election Year repeats the same beats of Anarchy). Only occasionally does the film truly aspire to be a horror (or even an action) movieóa fistfight during the climax is a nicely staged bit of brutality, but, for the most part, the film is functional in its violence.
Whatís more important is how the violence impacts the characters. From the beginning, DeMarco has envisioned The Purge as a twisted morality play, one thatís more concerned with the fallout of violence rather than the violence itself. That holds true for Election Year, which arguably features the most gravitas and pathos of the trilogy so far. DeMarco holds an obvious, genuine affection for this set of characters, whose camaraderie grounds the film in some very human stakes. Appropriately a diverse melting pot ranging from ex-gang members to a presidential candidate, itís a ragtag group that represents the scrappiness of the American spirit. I found myself sincerely invested in their various plights, especially the moral quandaries that arise during the course of the evening, even if they are more or less rehashed from the previous films.
Speaking of rehashing, DeMonacoís preoccupation with exploiting Americaís racial tension, a fault line thatís only become more volatile during the past two years in the wake of Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. Itís no surprise that this element is more pronounced than ever in Election Year, to the point where DeMonaco cribs Black Lives Matter iconography and the main antagonists bear Neo-Nazi insignia. Essentially, itís the Stormfront/Oath Keepers contingent transcribed to the silver screen, and you could do worse than to make a movie that thrives on seeing that crowd get their asses kicked. In this respect, Election Year is a full-bore exploitation movie that indulges in incendiary, politically-charged imagery; if nothing else, itís astounding that a film of this nature is playing in multiplexes during a 4th of July weekend. Certainly, thereís not a better time to confront our racial strife, even if itís in the form of crass, obvious filmmaking.
The overt, obvious nature of Election Year practically goads you into searching for more parallels. At times, itís so unsubtle that Iím shocked DeMonaco never makes an allusion to President Trump. If anything, it takes more of a swipe at the evangelical crowd, as Roanís opponent in the election feels like a Ted Cruz surrogate in his hypocritical piety. One of the filmís more unsettling moments has him presiding over a congregation whose devotion to the Purge reaches a religious fervor. DeMonaco leaves few targets unscathed, here, especially on the conservative end of the spectrum.
He doesnít let the left off the hook, either. Roanís status as female senator running for president invites an obvious comparison to Hillary Clinton, but the level of zealotry she inspires feels more akin to some of Bernie Sandersís more passionate supporters. Somewhere in the midst of condemning the moral majority, DeMarco takes a moment to show the dangers of ideological purity: at a certain point, you have to compromise and trust democracy to play out. You can either burn everything to the ground in a moment of passion or acknowledge that a calm, level-headed approach that doesnít require actual bloodshed is more reasonable.
If Iím being honest, The Purge: Election Year is awash in the sort of superficial, pop-culture politics that will ensure that its poster will adorn freshmen college studentsí walls for years. Whatever it says is hardly revolutionary, yet itís difficult not to at least admire that DeMonaco wants this franchise to be about something. More than that, itís refreshing to see a genre film coming from an impassioned, pissed-off place. Its familiarity and repetitive nature makes it feel somewhat safe, but youíre still compelled to marvel at the fact that a film that will play to multiplexes climaxes with a group of armed minorities opening fire in a churchóand theyíre the heroes. DeMonacoís aim might be scattershot, but at least heís aiming at something.
Since 2013, The Purge has felt like a concept and a collection of iconography in search of sharper articulation. With Election Year, it comes close enough to at least capturing the despairing howl of a country thatís watched ignorant hate-mongering muscle its way into its political discourse. Maybe thereís no proper way to articulate that, so itís just as well that DeMonaco fires away with all of the subtlety and precision of a shotgun blast.
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