The Purge: Election Year is further proof there’s little scarier than rich white people who are afraid they’ll have to share a modicum of wealth and respect with others. It’s the third in a series of movies about an alternate universe America where one day a year is set aside as Purge Day, a twisted national holiday celebrated with 12 hours of lawlessness. “All crime,” the official warning blares, “will be legal, including murder.” It’s always amusing to hear that last clause, the system openly encouraging murder as the one crime to prioritize. As this is a horror franchise, that’s only natural, but couldn’t there be an interesting Purge movie made out of people taking advantage of the time to get in some tax fraud or indecent exposure? Anyway, this entry is once again a murder-fest with good people struggling to survive the night. There’s not much new brought to the concept, just a reiteration that doubles down on its political subtext.
The Purge is a great concept. The first movie disappointingly steered away from its implications to become a small-scale siege picture, but the second was a tense gory actioner with sympathetic characters caught in the crossfire and a smart sense of the night’s disproportionate effects on women, minorities, and the poor. Election Year takes that political thread and runs with it. An idealistic senator (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for president on the promise of eliminating The Purge. The polls are close, so a cabal of powerful white guys – a conference table full of religious fundamentalists, corporate cronies, and crooked politicians – decides to take advantage of the upcoming holiday to eliminate this threat to their way of life. You see, they like the annual opportunity for consequence-free murder, especially as a means of consolidating their power and of population control. The senator’s head of security (Frank Grillo) catches wind of this just in time and narrowly escapes with the candidate out into the dangerous Purge Night.
It’d be hard to miss the message, with the wealthy backroom power brokers calling a team of mercenaries, white supremacists with Confederate flag patches and Swastika tattoos, after their target, and brave working class folks of all races rising up to protect her. A tough shop-owner (Mykelti Williamson), his loyal employee (Joseph Julian Soria), and their capable vigilante friend (Betty Gabriel) are protecting their neighborhood from looters and killers when they cross paths with the candidate and her rescuer. They team up to keep her shielded, and to track down a safe zone where they can rest. This is obviously easier said then done as they encounter around every corner murdering maniacs emboldened by the night’s evil permissive atmosphere. Memorable threats include affluent foreigners on murder tourism trips to “act like Americans” for the night and a group of teen girls who roll up in a car covered in ropes of white Christmas lights, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.” blaring from the stereo.
This sounds like some sick fun, and it sometimes is, but returning writer-director James DeMonaco cobbles together the setpieces with an unsteady camera, chaos editing, and a lack of cleverness. There’s little build in suspense or escalating action. Even its best moments are simply retreads of what’s worked before. Rather than improving on its predecessors or adding to the lore, it’s just more of the same. This time it’s taking the political subtext and, perhaps emboldened by its election year setting (and release), makes it simply text. Characters stand around discussing politics, making the implied points of other Purges right out loud without deepening or complicating them. If it feels like diminishing returns, it’s because the movie’s content to remake and repeat images and ideas while spelling out its point of view in broad, obvious terms. It’s an acid joke when the senator blames the night’s continued existence on it lining the pockets of the NRA and insurance companies. And the movie doesn’t play coy about the darkness of prejudice and mayhem in the populace that can be ignited by the right demagogue. But that’s also where the sloppiness of its construction starts to weigh on its moralizing.
It’s a movie ostensibly about how violence is never the answer, even ending on a triumphant note of one character convincing another that the ballot box is where the villains’ ultimate defeat will be. But this is also a movie that gets its reason for being out of the splatter moments. It’s hard to preach nonviolence mere minutes after a mass shooting is supposed to be read as some sort of catharsis. Is it seriously saying the only thing that can stop a bad Purge is a good Purge? And it’s hard to take its desire for interracial cooperation seriously when it includes several groups of Purging inner city youths coded as packs, shot in silhouette, speaking in exaggerated slang. Even our heroes get some cringe-worthy lines like, “Never sneak up on a black guy on Purge Night!” It leaves a bad taste, especially because it feels so inadvertent, an outgrowth of its well-intentioned hot-button emphasis mixed with flat dialogue and thin characterizations. It’s not fun or provocative, just mental pollution. At least the core concept of the series is strong enough and adaptable enough to survive a misfire like this one.