The Purge: Election Year: Make America Bleed Again, by David Bax
With The Purge: Election Year, James DeMonaco returns for his third movie in the series for which he has served as the sole writer and director. That makes these movies something of an anomaly; they’re a major studio/summer/genre/franchise that also represent a work of pure auteurism. That’s apparent in the consistently rousing blend of action and horror as well as in the political allegories that, at their best, abandon subtlety completely and wander into satire. DeMonaco’s successfully singular vision is something to celebrate but it also means he must take equal credit for the films’ failings.
Election Year is the first in the franchise to feature a returning character (though actor Edwin Hodge has appeared in all three, he’s played different characters; this iteration represents his largest role yet). Frank Grillo’s Sergeant Leo Barnes from 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy has left Los Angeles for Washington, D.C. and taken a job as the head of security for a Presidential candidate, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), running on a platform that includes eliminating the annual Purge. She’s doing well enough in the polls to spook the sitting administration and so, this year, they remove the protections for high-ranking politicians and hire a paramilitary, neo-Nazi hit squad to take her out. Leo and a band of locals take on the task of shepherding her through D.C.’s chaotic streets to safety.
Those ordinary citizens rallying to Roan’s cause consist of deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his Mexican-American employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney (Betty Gabriel) a former neighborhood bad girl turned volunteer Purge Night paramedic. DeMonaco openly disregards color- or gender-blind casting; no one’s race or sex is an accident. As in Anarchy, the downtrodden poor who are most victimized by the government’s policies are minorities while those who use the Purge to consolidate and maintain power are all white and almost entirely male. There’s nothing indirect about DeMonaco’s use of people as symbols and, serving his charged polemic as they do, there shouldn’t be. However, this choice does lead to some tired racial stereotypes, like Williamson’s wise-cracking old black man routine replete with groaners like, “You don’t sneak up on black people on Purge Night!”
If you found the sociopolitical parables of the first two entries heavy-handed, this movie will feel like a steamroller. Moving the action to the nation’s capital allows DeMonaco to dive further into the mythology of his series than ever before. The Purge’s sinister architects are finally more than just blips on TV screens. In fact, they are the flesh and blood villains of the story. Making them so immediately corporeal is indicative of Election Year’s push toward even more literalizing than we’ve seen thus far. The parallels to our present are undeniable. The election is a spectacle. The NRA is called out by name. And one of the disillusioned black folks at the center opines, “Hope can lead to a lot of letdown.” Only the characterization of the ruling party as rabid, tongue-speaking evangelicals feels like a holdover from the George W. Bush administration.
Okay, so we’ve established that Election Year is preachy and angry. Like that last one, though, it’s also a lot of fun. DeMonaco continues to explore the nifty little side alleys that spring up around his outlandish premise. The most enjoyable one this time around is the existence of “murder tourists,” foreigners who come to America for the sole purpose of killing people on Purge Night. The group Leo and the Senator encounter are decked out in garish red, white and blue. And the violence, brutal as it can be throughout, is as horrifying as it is exhilarating. You’re just as likely to cover your eyes as you are to cheer.
In many cases, in fact, cheering seems to be exactly what DeMonaco is hoping for. When our protagonists do something as gallant as blow half of a murderous teenage mean girl’s head off, they often follow it up with a bit of badass dialogue. At one point, I swear Williamson comes this close to saying, “Come with me if you want to live.” All of this is accompanied by a variety of hero shots from cinematographer and series vet Jacques Jouffret, approaching the characters with wide-lens, low-angle handheld shots. The Purge: Election Year encourages you to applaud certain characters for doing exactly what it condemns in others. The twinges of awareness you’ll feel will make it a bit hard—but nowhere near impossible—to enjoy the ride. But enjoy it you will.