With The Purge: Election Year, writer and director James DeMonaco seems to have undergone a slight change of perspective. With The Purge in 2013 and its fast turnaround sequel The Purge: Anarchy just a year later, DeMonaco channeled the base tendencies of exploitation cinema: a tight concept and a hint of social commentary to support a lot of graphic imagery. The basic idea of the Purge films — that a economic collapse in late 2010s America was "solved" by an ominous government cabal called the New Founding Fathers with a yearly "purge," a 12 hour period where all crime, including murder, is permitted — has fuzzy political commentary built in, obviously, but it's the easy, juvenile sort. Don't trust authority, money makes people corrupt, the poor get the shaft (metaphorically and more literally as well).
But the politics of The Purge have generally sat behind DeMonaco's gleeful interest in watchable shock cinema, crafted for a low attention span and delivered at a minimal budget (the Purge films have thus far yielded phenomenal returns on their seven or low eight figure production costs). There's been a consistent, detached sense of humor present in The Purge that hearkens back to that exploitation heritage.
In many respects, The Purge: Election Year continues that trend, builds upon it, even. It's the most watchable, crowd-pleasing, focused and even restrained of the trilogy, the least rough, the most mainstream. There are jokes. The characters tend to be easily quippy and funny. And in one of the most canny instances I can recall of real-world marketing synergy, The Purge: Election Year lands in the middle of a trainwreck of a US presidential election.
This may explain how somewhere along the line, The Purge: Election Year stopped laughing.
Election Year opens as the New Founding Fathers of America (the NFFA from here on out) find the tide turning against them. Public sentiment about the Purge is shifting as accusations abound that wealthy figures with NFFA ties appear to be financially benefitting from the yearly slaughter, and that the poor and people of color are disproportionately targeted on Purge night. On the back of this sentiment, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) has mounted an insurgent presidential campaign pledging to end the Purge, and two months before election day — which is in May in the Purge-iverse, apparently — has come within striking distance in the polls with NFFA-backed candidate Minister Edwidge Owens. The NFFA's solution to this is simple: remove the only rules of the yearly Purge, those protecting high-level elected officials, allowing them to assassinate Roan without reprisal.
Frank Grillo returns as Leo Barnes, the unlikely hero of The Purge: Anarchy who now serves as Roan's chief of security. A failed attempt on Roan on Purge night leads the pair out into the streets of DC, tailed by a team of neo-Nazi mercenaries. They find help in the form of deli owner Joe (Mykelti WIlliamson), his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney, a former gang member turned EMT played by Betty Gabriel.
In something of a departure from the last two films, Election Year spends a lot more time building up and developing relationships between its characters, enough that there's comparatively less extended scenes of torture and violence. I spent the film waiting to see when it would expend the emotional capital DeMonaco accrues through quieter scenes, to make it really uncomfortable when the people I kind of cared about were beaten or maimed, which both The Purge and Anarchy employed to varying degrees of success. To my surprise, this never really happened.
The horror of The Purge has been dialed back, setting up Election Year instead as a violent piece of action adventure, albeit one fixated on an annual night of murder. DeMonaco's scope has expanded considerably here, bringing in more world's-eye view of the Purge and the NFF's America, complete with Russian and Italian murder tourists, with media covering the election and Purge night. This was touched on in Anarchy, but it's more realized here.
In that way, Election Year serves as a decent jumping on point for the trilogy — it's an expedient movie that tells you about as much as you need to know to get the premise, and it's just a generally less indulgent film. This doesn't feel like an accident.
Where The Purge and Anarchy were disguised their predictable anger with detachment, Election Year strikes a different tone. There's something scared, something anxious about how much clearer this movie is in its politics and its message. Those politics are no longer window dressing for a bunch of cheap thrills. The critique doesn't feel as lazy. Instead, the action thriller trappings here seem like a vehicle for something more pointed.
I don't want to paint The Purge: Election Year as a great movie. It's not even always successful at what it's trying for. Some of the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and a minor subplot involving some evil schoolgirls feels like it's from an old draft of the script before someone got the memo about what Election Year was supposed to be. But the acting is solid, characters evolve and grow, and the script is predictable but not hamfisted with how it gets where it's going. It's a watchable, entertaining movie.
It's also in Election Year's favor that it's coming out now, amidst a Trump candidacy that trades in dogwhistle language with anti-immigrant, racist and anti-Semitic sentiment while railing against political correctness. Election Year is arriving as yet another fruitless conversation about violence in America and our attitudes toward guns winds its way down. Because of that timing, Election Year may not be a great movie, but as it closes with Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans," it does feel like a relevant one.