Film Review: ‘The Purge: Election Year’

The Purge: Election Year
Courtesy of Universal

The third 'Purge' film is the most excitingly sustained, because the clockwork violence is now merged with dark political satire.

The Purge: Election Year” is a scurrilously effective pop rabble-rouser — a movie that’s been built to get you riled, and does. It’s a squalid B-movie political horror film that plays to our most reptile-brained basic instincts, and also to our cartoon-noble ideals, and by the end you can’t separate the two; that’s the way canny shameless pop works. In the opening scene, the members of a family are sitting on a couch, bound and gagged and blood-spattered, while a masked killer entertains them with tunes from his “Purge playlist” (he makes an obscenely jaunty segue from “20th Century Boy” by T. Rex to George Clinton’s “We Want the Funk”). A guy like this, in another film, would have been a violent head case, but in the “Purge” movies, where even the most horrifyingly twisted murder is legal for one night a year, he’s just a dude getting his demented ya-ya’s out. He’s the sicko killer inside us all. A bit later, the movie takes us to another Purge Night eighteen years after the first one, when a crew of innocents are holed up in a bodega. The natural born killers they’re facing are tarty teenage girls brandishing jewel-studded automatic weapons (and power saws!) who look as if they’d just stepped out of the slasher movie of Quentin Tarantino’s dreams. Watching “The Purge: Election Year,” it’s easy to see why the rah-rah blahness of “Independence Day: Resurgence” didn’t connect with audiences. In 2016, this is what tasty patriotic popcorn looks like.

“The Purge,” in 2013, was a glorified stalker-in-the-house movie. A year later, “The Purge: Anarchy” improved on it by keeping most of the action to the streets, and by introducing the lean-and-mean actor Frank Grillo as Leo, a haunted good guy who can be as ruthless as a purger. You’d think the concept would now be wearing thin, but “Election Year,” which feels like the final chapter in a trilogy (though after the box office grosses are in, that could change), is the best “Purge” film yet. The action is excitingly sustained in a way that it wasn’t in the previous two, and the political dimension, while crude as hell, exerts a brute-force entertainment value.

The movie revolves around an idealistic savior of a presidential candidate, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who has pledged to bring an end to Purge Night. (She was the girl who survived that opening scene.) A majority of citizens appear to be leaning her way, so the U.S. government, born again as the NFFA (the New Founding Fathers of America), decides that there’s only one way to stop her: by abducting and killing her on Purge Night. James DeMonaco, who has written and directed all three films, still walks a slightly awkward line between exploitation and intelligence, and he should really stop shooting every scene in wavery hand-held close-up, but in “Election Year,” he embraces the pulp guts of his material.

The “Purge” films may be the rare example of high-concept movies in which the concept is actually more provocative than the execution. Not that the concept is all that original; it’s been banged together from bits and pieces of the movie past. A future in which gangs of youthful hooligans run wild is, of course, straight out of “A Clockwork Orange.” The notion of ritualized slaughter as a legal and celebrated spectacle, all presided over by a theocracy of decadent elites, is right out of “The Hunger Games.” The stray glimpses of baroque terror we see on Purge Night — in “Election Year,” they include death by guillotine and victims strapped onto car hoods like deer — evoke the random marauder madness of “The Road Warrior.” And the plot of each film, with a crew of survivors doing all they can to get out of the way of people who’ve become killing machines, makes the “Purge” movies a lot like zombie films. If you squint a bit, you can make out the ghost of “Lord of the Flies,” that 1954 schoolroom classic that introduced so many us to the concept of The Beast Within.

What’s unique in the “Purge” films is how much the anarchy and murderous evil are sanctioned. They’re what an overly controlled society should hate, yet in the “Purge” films homicidal craziness has become a cornerstone of civic duty. How messed up — and relevant — is that? Keeping the masses down by encouraging them to vent everything that they are. It’s like a violent version of Internet culture. To all that, the “Purge” films add a drop-dead layer of political satire, and in “Election Year” that layer is pushed front and center. The NFFA sells Purge Night as an escape valve that gives rise to an otherwise peaceful, tranquilized society. Really, though, it’s a conspiracy and a fraud: a way of killing off poor people so that the rich won’t have to support them. Not, perhaps, since “Soylent Green” has a future-shock parable been so memorably obvious in its metaphor. Kyle Secor, as the NFFA ringleader who presides over the annual Purge Mass (a church service in which the members of the power elite pray to the gods of murder to keep them rich), seethes and exhorts like a Richard Nixon mask come to life. The skewed intensity of his performance — so many people to keep down! so much money to protect! — cues you to see that, yes, this really is a movie about what’s happening today.

Elizabeth Mitchell isn’t a bad actress, and she bears a fetching resemblance to Judy Collins, but she’s miscast. Even in the pop future, she doesn’t seem remotely presidential, which may be why she’s asked to wear a pair of horn-rims that make her look like a porn star impersonating a college professor. But she forms a convincing bond with Grillo’s Leo, who is now her police bodyguard, and their deadpan flirtation helps to carry the movie. Mykelti Williamson, as the deli owner who has just lost his purge insurance and is full of wrath about it, is the film’s perpetual scene-stealer, and the anchor of its comic-book racial politics. When our heroes are huddled in a triage van, he brings down the house with a retro-badass line like, “There’s a whole bunch of Negroes comin’ right this way, and we’re sittin’ here like a bucket of mother—-in’ chicken!” In “The Purge: Election Year,” it’s kill or be eaten.

The violence in “The Purge: Election Year” usually promises to be worse than it is, which is one reason why this is a mainstream movie. “A Clockwork Orange” shocked people because of how it got us to identify with Alex, but there’s never a moment in “Election Year” when a character we know and like turns into a purger, killing for the nasty pleasurable kick of it. The movie never takes that risk, and so it never reaps the reward of dramatic complexity. The one thing in “Election Year” that carries a tinge of honest shock value is the portrayal of a political ruling class that elevates its self-interest into a religion of destruction that pretends to benefit everyone else. You may watch these scenes with a shock of recognition, and with a feeling that it’s time that side of American political life was purged.

Film Review: 'The Purge: Election Year'

Reviewed at AMC Lincoln Square, New York, June 28, 2016. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production

A Universal Pictures release of a Platinum Dunes, Blumhouse Production production. Produced by Jason Blum, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Brad Fuller, Sabastien Lemercier. Executive producer, Luc Etienne. Co-producers, Jeanette Brill, Phillip Dawe.

Crew

Directed, written by James DeMonaco; camera, Jacques Jouffret (color, widescreen); editor, Todd E. Miller; production designer, Sharon Lomofsky; costume designer, Elisabeth Vastola; music, Nathan Whitehead; casting, Terri Taylor.

With

Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, David Aaron Baker, Kyle Secor, Ethan Phillips, Raymond J. Barry, Kimberly Howe.

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  1. kamal says:

    The Purge: Election Year is an OK sequel for die-hard fans of the series, but it won’t win any new converts.

  2. purge says:

    i have watched previous purge movies and i liked them. guess this will be good movie too

  3. James Dix says:

    Nothing’s original. The concept of sanctioned craziness goes back–at the least–to the original Star Trek (“The Return of the Archons”).

  4. loco73 says:

    In a strange but welcome way, “The Purge” is the little movie franchise that could. The budgets for all three movies combined don’t even add to a fraction of what the budget for a single Marvel movie or the above mentioned “Independence Day: Resurgence” end up costingYet for what they were intended to be the movies delivered.

    “The Purge” franchise also has that unfortunately rare distinction whereby each subsequent instalment has gotten better, something which actually bucks the trend where each prequel or sequel of much larger and more established movie franchises instead of improving, have gotten more watered down and of poorer quality. In this case, while the first movie featured the more high profile and easier recognizable cast, especially Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, the next two movies have almost drawn down in terms of the actor’s profiles, but not their detriment, as it turns out that Frank Grillo is a scene stealer and a lot of fun to watch, as where the rest of the cast populating the last two installments . Of course having Michael K. Williams appear in “The Purge: Anarchy”, and in anything else for that matter, is always a win-win for me!

    Say what you want about this franchise, but if movies with such a bare-bone, barely there budged can deliver such a level of enjoyment and entertainment, with a sprinkling of substance, concepts and ideas…this should give pause to studios to think about the direction they are heading in…if “The Purge; Election Year” with a $10 million dollar budget is proving to be a contender against such movies as “Tarzan” with a price tag of $180 million dollars and “The BFG” with a $140 million dollars one….ouch!

  5. ken1lutheran says:

    You can always get some people in Hollywood to stand up and salute when you make a gruesome caricature of conservatism. They live in a make-believe world in which conservatives are ogres.

  6. Decker says:

    To anyone familiar with the original Star Trek (the vast majority of Hollywood) the Purge is obviously a feature adaptation of Return of the Archons. Before any trolls jump on this with other film nerd references, please just defer to the writer/director, who has admitted this several times in interviews and knows better than any critics or bloggers which material he ripped off.

  7. Jason D says:

    Torture porn goes mainstream and becomes respectable if you kill conservatives and Republicans. How much more BS is Hollywood going to serve up?

    • cadavra says:

      Nowhere in the review are the words “conservative” and “Republican” even mentioned. You’re merely projecting your own bizarre hatred of the industry onto an even-handed review. Go away.

  8. LOL says:

    It’s like the Brexit campaign, then. Since last week, South Asians in Britain have been getting punched in their masses. Even a Native American living in Manchester got decked on the tram. Scary times.

  9. HDPR says:

    This series is tight. And a welcome respite from the CGI Marvel bs where characters just fling each other around with no consequence. I hope this is a massive hit. It has its finger on the pulse of American frustration and also the best ideal of melting pot behavior.

  10. irwinator1992 says:

    This and the other Purge films are disgusting, shameful, worthless trash. They’re another reason why I despise Michael Bay.

  11. Rex says:

    Sooo, “a future in which gangs of youthful hooligans run wild” can be traced all the way back to Clockwork Orange, but the only antecedent this reviewer can find for “the notion of ritualized slaughter as a legal and celebrated spectacle, all presided over by a theocracy of decadent elites” is The Hunger Games?

    Not The Running Man? Battle Royale? Or Series 7: The Contenders? Death Race 2000? Rollerball? The 10th Victim? Come on, seriously. How effortless is it to pick onl;y the most blatantly obvious pop culture reference points? Then again, Mr. Gleiberman did scribble for Entertainment Weekly once upon a time, but I know he knows better. Sigh…

    Frankly, the act of referencing all the OTHER movies that another movie REMINDS you of should be banned among professional critics unless it’s a deliberate homage, which is not the case in the examples cited above. It’s lazy column padding barely suitable to the amateurs who clog sites like IMDB and Amazon — not to mention a million blogs — and it only makes a paid professional look every bit as shallow and inexperienced.

    So knock it off. Please and thank you.

    • millerfilm says:

      Hey, if a movie works, it works. Everything is borrowed from everything, this being 120+ years into movie history.

    • Seifer says:

      Where’s your experience Rex? I don’t see you on any review sites and you need to deal with a review being an opinion and not be so pompous or condescending in your attitude. Since just because you didn’t like the movie doesn’t make you a better person.

  12. Kenny says:

    Owen, you said it’s “like a violent version of internet culture,” but the real-life parallel there is what happened in Baltimore after Freddie Gray! The mayor actually encouraged rioters to “vent.” That’s scary as hell, and reality today in the U.S.
    We’ve long since passed satire…

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