Film Review – The Purge: Election Year
The Purge: Election Year
Man I wish these movies were better.
This series is a repeating exercise in frustration. There is potential here for making a trenchant, biting, incisive commentary on American society. And there are germs of good ideas in The Purge series. But they are so underutilized and pedestrian in their execution that you walk away disappointed.
It all started with The Purge. For those who are still unfamiliar, the series started in the year 2022. So the not too distant future. The premise is that once a year, for 12 hours, all crime including murder is legal. There are no emergency services available, you aren’t allowed to use a certain level of weapons, presumably explosives, and certain top tier government officials are off limits. But other than that, the populace is fee to run amok with the idea being that purging yourself of all violence and animosity makes the rest of the year peaceful. It’s a great concept. It’s such a great concept that the original Star Trek thought of it about 50 years ago (For those who care, the episode was called Return of the Archons and it’s the one where the whole planet is ruled by a being name Landru and the populace is docile until The Festival starts and they all go crazy for a period of time and when the Festival is over they all go back to brainwashed and peaceful and it turns out that Landru is actually a computer and Kirk talks it to death). But it is a great idea for a story.
That first movie was basically a home invasion thriller. If you’ll remember it was limited to Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady and their family fighting off a group of murderers. Presumably part of that small scope was budgetary much like Night of the Living Dead alluding to a worldwide plague but being set in one house.
The second film, The Purge: Anarchy, followed a group of 5 people who get stuck out in the streets on Purge night for various reasons and have to survive until the dawn. The idea was to open up the concept a bit and show the city wide destruction that occurs to lower income families unlike the family in the first film. The group ended up being protected by a character played by Frank Grillo who was basically The Punisher. He was an expert in hand to hand combat and weaponry who was looking for revenge for his son’s death.
This latest installment, The Purge: Election Year, features Grillo’s character again. In this film, set roughly 20ish years after the first, it is a Presidential election year. The two candidates are pro-Purge candidate Minister Owens played with snarling verve by Kyle Secor and Purge abolitionist Senator Roan played by Elizabeth Mitchell of TV’s Lost. The Senator’s family was murdered in front of her 18 years earlier on Purge night and ever since she has been working to end the practice. However, the New Founding Fathers, the group in control of everything and creators of The Purge, have targeted the Senator using this night as an excuse to take her out. Our heroic weapon’s expert is now the Senator’s loyal chief of security. When arrangements for her safe evening go awry, he acts as a one man defender to protect her for the evening.
They end up hooking up with a quirky group of denizens of a convenience store who believe in her cause and end up assisting her. Mykelti Williamson is featured as the owner of the store who planned on protecting his little slice of the American dream from marauders. But circumstances make him abandon that plan and this group of misfits ends up helping.
Election Year is like the first two films. More of the same. Basically, the social commentary here is limited to “Americans like guns, are gullible, and have pent up anger”. The idea of The Purge has never been fully realized. Think about it: in reality if this kind of thing happened, things would get rapey real quick. People would likely be Human Centipede-ing each other all over the place. And we won’t even mention the potentially atrocious things that would happen to children during this 12 hour period. Yet all the people in these movies are only interested in shooting each other. The masks the rampagers wear are a fun visual idea. In this film at one point they get attacked by a pair dressed as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty. But slow motion footage of people dancing around in masks with no other real threat involved ends up being less than scary. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to watch a bunch of torture porn either. There are some horrendous and misogynistic places these films could go if they wanted. And admittedly I don’t want to see that either. But the idea of people running wild with no consequences should at least give you a sense of unease and dread. Consider The Shining with it’s depiction of alcoholism and domestic terror and consider what a Stanley Kubrick could’ve done with this film. Or look at Funny Games for an example of the sickening uneasiness of a home invasion horror movie that’s well executed.
And the commentary side of this has potential as well. Exploring the idea of America’s fascination with guns couldn’t be more timely. Governmental control of the populace through materialism and distraction is a rich vein to tap as well. Yet these movies simply stop at the mention of these themes. There’s nothing in the script that gets beneath the surface. There is room for an action oriented blockbuster to have social relevance. Think about Minority Report which was definitely a science fiction thriller but also allowed for thoughts on thought crime and freewill. Or even look at this year’s Captain America: Civil War which managed to have spectacular battles between armies of costumed heroes and still allow for an interesting debate about security versus freedom.
Even on the science fiction front nothing really happens. This movie happens about 20 years after the first one which places it somewhere in the 2040s. Yet there have been no technological advances whatsoever. Everything looks like today. I’m not asking for flying cars or anything, but something would’ve changed in that amount of time. Imagine what an iPhone will look like in 25 years.
I applaud The Purge: Election Year on some fronts. It features a great many minority actors in heroic roles. It bothers to at least consider what kind of impact this Purge idea would have on the lower class. And having a Hollywood thriller/horror movie even mention class warfare in this current political climate is a pleasant surprise. But like it’s predecessors, this movie is filled with unexploited potential. If possibly the script could’ve managed to dissect it’s ideas more and the direction could’ve executed with more menace we could’ve ended up with a truly important movie. Instead we are left with a kind of mediocre one.