Overview: Crime is legal for another whacky evening. Universal Pictures; 2016; Rated R, 103 minute.
Revisiting Promise: For cult film fans, the conceptual premise upon which The Purge film series is built represents the promise of a rich and exciting intersection where two cult-favorite cinema styles might meet: the first being an exercise of screen hyper-violence meant to reflect a real-life violence from which the American people are detached but complicit (typically Vietnam, Iraq, or other unjust industrial war efforts) and the second being speculations of indeterminately futuristic societies that serve as suggestively slight extensions of some current social logic to its damning conclusion. It is a rare or maybe even non-existent combination of tropes that still sounds obvious in its potential. If the first sort represents a forced comparison of x (fake violence) to y (real violence) and the second sort represents a comparison of a (a current flawed social psychology) to b (that psychology’s imagined licensure through institutionalization), then placing these two atop one another builds the perfect axis of social introspection.
But instead of Bertino’s The Strangers meets Cuaron’s Children of Men, James DeMonaco’s The Purge offered a rather goofy home invasion movie that grows quickly disinterested in the premise. And instead of I Spit On Your Grave meets A Clockwork Orange, DeMonacos’s followup The Purge: Anarchy was little more than a B-movie revenge story that falls apart into an out-of-place moralistic conclusion, this time with a half-committed peripheral interest in the rabid Purge culture. But, with The Purge: Election Year, presumably the final chapter of the trilogy, DeMonaco drives a rough Die Hard emulation directly into the dark, terrifying teeth of both of these film types.
My Country Tis of Thee: Perhaps DeMonaco’s most important decision as the returning writer and director is that of distinctly owning the unsubtle political and social fabric of his minutely figurative premise. The Purge, as narrative device, enhances the volume of America’s fear, hate, and anxiety so that it can become a loud symbol of itself, and, for those who might have lost the connection, Election Year drapes a stars and stripes flag over the story’s shoulders.
Election Year follows Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate whose political ambition is defined by a desire to end the Purge through executive order, as she attempts to survive the night on the streets of Washington, D.C. Roan and her protectors flee from would-be killers who don costumes that distort the likeness of Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. The makeshift crew moves through the streets of the capital, observes grotesque graffiti on the columns of the Lincoln Memorial, and joins forces with a righteous #HomelessLivesMatter activist group looking to upend the classist, racist, and oppressive social standard. Their struggle to survive pits them against literal drones and actual skinheads. The movie begins with T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” and ends with David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” DeMonaco doesn’t just pin his movie to our shared time and place, he ungracefully stabs a knife through its heart and into the operating table for inspection. And, again, it’s about time.
Rest Assured: Very little is sacrificed in terms of the first two films’ redemptive elements. DeMonaco even brings back arguably the best actors from each entry with Frank Grillo returning as Leo Barnes, now Roan’s top security officer, and Edwin Hodges back as militant activist Dante Bishop. Grillo, one of the most earnest and natural action stars of the current era, leads the survival front in screen time, but the eventual collection of fighters has all the makings of a cult collective– diverse in ethnicity and gender but each with defined fighting capability and unique heroism. Joseph Julian Soria and Betty Gabriel, as Marcos and Laney, are standouts in quiet strength and the quieter backstories that define it.
The movie’s music cues are precisely cinematic, with pop flavors being almost too on-the-nose for the intended irony and cutting rock power chords perfectly tied to pulpy action movie badassness. And, perhaps the series’ most recognizable trademark, the production value offers the creepiest, most nightmarish imagery and criminal costumes yet. The neon Christmas lights on the car of the candy thieves, the hymnal-singing woman sitting in shock over the burning corpse, and the weaponized parking garage pit fighting– all of it illustrates the tones of apocalypse viewers have always wanted in these films.
The Violence: Just as the imagery is more unhinged, so too seems the measure of the violence. Election Year is also the most violent film in the series. With the exception, perhaps, of a scene in which Laney turns her van into a wrecking ball, the violence frequently avoids the softened presentation of standard genre fare. More often than not, even the defensive violence comes with a smidgeon of uneasiness, particularly when a dozen or so purgers with foreign accents are quickly dispatched of in a hail of hero-defensive gunfire (a bit of an uncomfortable kink in the film’s powerful fire hose of thinly-veiled political allegory). Election Year even finds the batshit climax its premise deserves in an eerie church ritual borne of young, developing traditionalism twisting Christian ritual beyond recognition. Unfortunately, the film takes two too many steps, adding a second climax in a clumsily-edited knife fight and a third to allow an unnecessary act of self-sacrifice, but, whew boy, is it nice to see a Purge film work long enough to make a late, non-ruinous mistake.
The Larger Question: In the weeks leading up to the release of The Purge: Election Year, America saw headlines about the largest mass shooting in its history, about the stockpiling of guns that happened just after, about a young Muslim entrepreneur being willfully misinterpreted by a celebrated conservative media outlet and then thrown to readers who bombarded her with death threats and attacks of violently vulgar messages, and about a group of anarchists who attacked Neo-Nazi demonstrators with knives. Beneath all of that terror, one headline slipped past many: the one regarding a killer who was allegedly inspired by The Purge.
With each installment of this series, it feels a little more necessary to discuss: Is it possible that these films are reckless? That perhaps the theatrical presentation of modern society’s unleashed primal rage might ignite bloodlust within an audience population that is increasingly on edge and fragmented by inner-division? It would be dishonest to say that this dystopian concept doesn’t feel like a more accurate representation of our short term future with each passing year and each additional film. Just four years ago, I probably would have indignantly scoffed at the suggestion that this fierce and hateful aggression and violence was inherent in the twenty-first century human condition. But, with a significant segment of our country entertaining a fascist immigration platform and refusing regulation on mass murder weapons, I don’t know that I would now. And, in the comparison of reality and cinema, I don’t know if it’s the film that makes things scary here.
Overall: The Purge: Election Year is the height of an imperfect series, a flawed film nonetheless almost certain to be a long-term cult classic or a short-term pulp prophecy.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures