‘The Purge: Election Year’ Review: Like the 2016 Election, But Less Scary
In 2013, The Purge introduced an interesting horror concept: In the not-too-distant future, the government allows citizens to commit violent crimes for one night each year. That first film featured a nice white suburban family besieged by yuppie college kids, only fleetingly paying any mind to broader ideas about class warfare. The Purge: Anarchy further established the mythology of the franchise by weaving a “one percent vs. the 99 percent” element into a tale of revenge. In 2016, we have The Purge: Election Year, which turns the sociopolitical commentary up to 11 in the most ridiculous, relevant installment of the series yet. Far from nuanced allegory, the sequel splits the difference between satire and lowbrow camp in a film that could just as easily be titled The Idiot’s Guide to Being Woke in 2016.
Obviously it’s no coincidence that The Purge: Election Year arrives in an election year, and centers on a female presidential candidate (LOST star Elizabeth Mitchell) battling oppressive conservative politics. In one of the film’s scant displays of restraint, Mitchell’s Senator Roan isn’t competing with a caricature of Donald Trump, but rather with a candidate who resembles Mitt Romney. And in a move not entirely detached from reality, the nefarious New Founding Fathers enact last-minute legislation that revokes the Purge-immune status from political figures — you know, like Senator Roan, the one person who might actually stop all their deranged murder-fun.
Anarchy hero Frank Grillo returns for Election Year, having taken a job as Roan’s chief bodyguard. He’s a loose cannon, the only man for the job, etc. They’re joined by a kindly deli owner, the young woman he helped get off the streets, and an immigrant co-worker with an unflappable faith in Roan. Betty Gabriel is the breakout of the bunch as Laney Rucker, a former street tough who spends Purge Night riding around in an armored EMT vehicle to rescue the injured and take them to an underground help center run by a political activist. Gabriel is so charismatic and compelling that you’ll hope for a fourth Purge if only so she can replace Grillo as the lead.
The Purge: Election Year is too heavy-handed to be considered satire, or even allegory. It lacks the elegance of High-Rise, another recent release that examined class warfare far more effectively. But Ben Wheatley’s film is an arthouse indie — it’s an elitist movie for elites. Election Year is an elitist movie for the masses.
That’s not necessarily an insult. Election Year is relentlessly entertaining, and being boring is one of the few crimes it doesn’t feature onscreen. Some of these moments are campy fun, like the group of narcissistic teenage girls who act like Lolita on steroids and treat the Purge like Halloween. Their ringleader is a cartoon of a caricature of the bratty offspring of selfie culture, and her obnoxious declarations about candy bars (yes, really) are hilariously bizarre. Mostly, these girls exist to be hated so much that you’ll cheer their inevitable demise. Maybe that should feel wrong, but this movie knows exactly what it is: Catharsis that skips right past uncanny satire and straight into a gleefully violent spoof of these United States.
Take, for instance, the group of white power thugs hired by the conservative right to assassinate Roan. It’s so on the nose it hurts, but there’s something pretty amazing about watching a couple of those guys face off with a group of Crips. On the other end of the spectrum are the scenes like the one in which deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) takes note of encroaching gang members and jokes, “Look at all these negroes! And we up here like a bucket of fried chicken.”
And while the aforementioned moment does elicit laughter, it’s of the uncomfortable, “Holy s—, did he just say that?” variety. It’s a joke rooted in worn-out stereotypes, and one written by a white man — in this case, franchise writer and director James DeMonaco. Those jokes may come from the mouths of black characters, but they’re written from a white point of view.
Still, there are a lot of ideas at work, from the conservative ploy to eliminate the lower-class with annual Purges (which isn’t far removed from the shameless mechanics of the U.S prison system), to the idea that murder has become a viable tourist industry as people from around the globe flock to America to Purge. But it’s hardly subtle, and it doesn’t take more than a few brain cells to connect the dots between Election Year and our current sociopolitical climate. Those in power are out for themselves, attacking the poor and making it impossible for lower- and middle-class people to achieve the American dream. Insurance is a scam. Effecting meaningful change is nearly impossible — and yet, Election Year is weirdly hopeful about politics.
All of that sounds like relevant, thoughtful social commentary, but then you watch a man get into an argument over an 11th hour price-hike in his “Purge Insurance,” and you know just how damn silly this movie is — and how little it takes itself seriously. Although Election Year appears to effectively bring this trilogy to a conclusion, a fourth Purge film wouldn’t be unwelcome as long as DeMonaco keeps the absurdity dialed up to 11 (but no further, please, I beg you). Come to think of it, The Purge has become the new Saw franchise: What began with a simple, contained thriller has escalated to outrageous, bloody chaos. And while James Wan’s feature debut was a bit more effective than DeMonaco’s first Purge outing, the latter has Saw’s diminishing returns beat with a recognizable (and coherent) mythology and increasing entertainment value that doesn’t rely on torture porn for thrills. That doesn’t make it any less silly, however.