Nutshell: While Anarchy upped the Purge stakes with it’s clear-eyed and horrifying look at class warfare run amok, Election Year pulls back on the message, and is a weaker film for it. Writer/director James DeMonaco flounders in his third act, delivering a heavy-handed horror film that’s fun for the genre, but could have been so much more. Grade: B
I loved The Purge: Anarchy, even though at first I thought it’d be a stress-fest “thriller” parading as horror film. (Hell, I can turn on the news for that kind of shit.) Anarchy‘s ability to dig into the ugly truths behind the haves vs. the have-nots, and how that film grew its mythology in a way that was terrifying and exciting – still hoping for a YouTube Purge webisode series, btw – floored me, and carved its way into my heart. So when I heard that DeMonaco was amping up for a third go, this time skewering our political system? I was all in. Sadly, The Purge: Election Year doesn’t have the same punch in the gut that Anarchy has. It’s more of a knowing head-nod/Kanye-shrug. Whaddaya gonna do; world’s crazy y’all.
It’s two years after the events in Anarchy, and Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now the chief of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). Roan’s stance on the Purge is controversial; after her family was slaughtered on Purge Night fifteen years earlier, she’s determined to end the slaughter. But the New Founding Fathers – the group that came into power and enacted the 28th Amendment that legalized the Purge – are determined to put a stop to her once and for all. This Purge, the rule that government officials “above Level 10” are exempt and may not be harmed? Jettisoned. Before too long, keeping Roan alive is up to Barnes, a group of DC rebels who hope to end the Purge their way, and three everyday folks jut trying to live through the night.
It’s a fantastic setup for a terrific story, right? But Election Year feels a bit self-congratulatory, as if DeMarco rested on his Anarchy laurels and decided to just go for action instead of digging into the subtext. Yes, the Purge is wrong, and must be stopped. Just because we know the mythology doesn’t mean opportunities to show how the Purge plays out, beyond brief glimpses of mayhem and murder. Hey, I love mayhem and murder as much as the next horror junkie, but viewers get short changed when the whys and wherefores get left behind. In the scene where a triage truck operator (folks who drive around Purge Night lending aid to those hurt) pulls over to help a man who’s been shot and his hysterical wife, there’s a backstory there that’s tossed out to audiences several scenes later, as a one-sentence afterthought. Keeping that story in would have made for a few extra minutes of film time, but would have delivered a serious emotional and ethical punch. Instead, it’s tossed aside. And that’s a shame.
Not that Election Year doesn’t have its moments. There are a lot of good things to be said. Remember how I said that being nice to EVERYBODY, or else, seems to be the rule of the day? A shop owner tells a girl to give back a candy bar she’s shoplifted pre-Purge…and she comes back later for a bit of psychotic payback. It’s creepy, effective, and thanks to the gloriously vivid cinematography, almost beautiful. The opening scene is horrifying, as we see Roan’s family on the Purge Night that claimed their lives. It’s a mix of terror and suspense, with a gloriously incongrous T-Rex and Parliament soundtrack. In these scenes, Election Year shines. And while the rest of the film is a fun horror romp taken as-is, it’s “cut to the next scene” rather than “lets’ make a film that will really grab you in your moral center”. Anarchy could grab you and scare you. Election Year just misses that mark.
I am well aware that most of the reason I’m a little miffed with Election Year is because Anarchy was so amazingly good. Are the ideas of the Purge mythos represented in Election Year? Absolutely. Are there plenty of scary moments? You betcha. But there’s an overall sloppiness here that was nowhere around the whipsmart Anarchy. Scenes blur together in the hustle, with opportunities for digging into sub-plots (or offshoot character motivations) left in the dust. Not to mention a few scenes where actors are definitely off their leash in a bad way. There’s a scene where New Founding Fathers presidential puppet Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor, Homicide: Life on the Street) goes so batty that a scene that was supposed to be chilling ended up causing bellylaughs at the screening I attended. An actor gets into the role, but a director should catch when it’s over the top. And that moment destroys the scene, and lessens the impact of the film’s climax.
So? The Purge: Election Year is definitely something you’ll wanna queue up come our own Election Day. If only to keep your mind off the craziness that is this year’s election. And if you’re looking for more than aliens this 4th, you can’t go wrong with a bit of bloody fun that pokes at the sleeping bear that is our beloved (warts and all) country. Election Year is fun, bloody, scary, and while it doesn’t delve much into the mythos this series created, it’s a harmless wrapup of a trilogy. Pity it couldn’t have taken one last dive into what drives human behavior, instead of simply showing the aftermath.