Not long after the Purge begins in presumed trilogy capper The Purge: Election Year, a young purger shouts “I already took care of my mom and dad tonight” to threaten deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Wiliamson). A day earlier she had tried to shoplift a candy bar from Joe’s deli. Now she’s back with her friends, decked out with glittery assault rifles and rolling in cars covered in Christmas lights, to claim her candy and Joe’s life. They’re all young black women of ambiguous socioeconomic class but the film doesn’t give us anything else about them. Without any background information to fill in the blanks, their depiction comes off as a shallow indictment of entitled American millennials, rather than a cogent political statement. Election Year’s failure as a political object—and it means to be one—is defined by this lack of specificity.
The Purge–the 12 hours a year when all crime is legal–was created by the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) and, as The Purge: Anarchy laid bare, functions largely to facilitate a one-sided class war. Eighteen years after her family was murdered during the Purge, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for president on a Purge abolishment platform.
To put a stop to her campaign, the NFFA have revoked the rule that grants Purge immunity to politicians, leaving Roan a target for an assassination attempt that they plan to carry out. Luckily, Roan’s security detail is led by Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), Anarchy’s protagonist. After the initial attempt on the senator’s life is made, Roan and Barnes find themselves fighting to survive on the streets.
Over the course of their night, they cross paths and team up with Joe Dixon and his compatriots, Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel). The centrality and heroic acts of these three characters lends the film a stronger political backbone than its predecessors. For films ostensibly about the systematic murder of the politically disenfranchised, The Purge and The Purge: Anarchy tended to marginalize those groups within their own narratives, focusing instead on white people of relative privilege. This new installment largely does the same, though it’s much more willing to spread the spotlight.
Rather than solely focus on the violence the wealthy directly enact on their targets, The Purge: Election Year works mainly with two lines of intra-class Purging. First, with Senator Roan threatening to end the Purge, much of the violence committed by political elites is directed at her and Barnes. Meanwhile, the most direct threat to Joe’s deli is the gang of girls from the same neighborhood. As our protagonists drive through DC, they witness heinously creative murders committed by faceless purgers. The rich are content to let the poor kill each other on Purge night.
But the outsized nature of these films denies the nuance that would make this a potent metaphor. We know what people do during the Purge, but beyond the superficial motivations of a candy bar, the conditions that drive them to violence are never explored. By denying the populace motivation for murder, The Purge: Election Year suggests that the average American person is naturally violent rather than driven to violence by social inequity or any other factor. For whatever else the film brings to the table politically, this hollow bit of representational nastiness serves only to portray the masses as monstrous.
Cynicism like this undercuts the film’s faith in the democratic process. When in the midst of revolutionaries who seek to fight back against the government, Senator Roan openly disapproves of their violent methods and condescends to their leader Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). If she is to end the Purge, she says, she must do it through the proper channels and violence against her competition would be to game the system. That the country responsible for the Purge still holds free and fair elections is the most far-fetched element of Election Year. And faith in that government’s ability to correct itself plays as totally risible after three of these movies.
Still, I can’t help but imagine what this concept—political bumbling and all—might look like in the hands of capable filmmakers. The words “For the next 12 hours all crime, including murder, is legal” conjure visions of a modern Escape from New York. Instead we’re left with director James DeMonaco who has shepherded this series since its beginning.
DeMonaco’s filmmaking lacks visual structure or character, and boasts an inability to build tension or stage coherent action. Moments of genuine ingenuity—a Purge drone stalks our protagonists at one point because of course there are nerds who purge from home—are ruined by haphazard framing and arrhythmic pacing. In several fight scenes, combatants are framed in close-up and pushed to the very margins of the screens. If DeMonaco’s intention was to create confusion in his audience, he’s succeeded. But he never manages to transforms that confusion into terror or anything resembling excitement.
Yet despite the film’s unengaging chaos and flaccid politics, I found myself actively rooting for Senator Roan to survive and win the election. After all, if she eliminates the Purge, they might have to stop making these movies.
The Purge: Election Year is now playing everywhere.
Directed by James DeMonaco; written by James DeMonaco; starring Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Edwin Hodge; 105 minutes.