I can’t figure out why the Purge movies haven’t been more successful. Oh, they’ve done fine financially, particularly thanks to their very low budgets. Election Year reportedly cost only $10 million to produce (and that’s many multiples of the budgets of the first two films), which is pocket change in Hollywood, and has grossed more than $100 million worldwide, and it’s only just opening today in the UK, so it will add to that tally. But they don’t seem to have had much cultural impact, which is odd seeing how this franchise continues to be one of the more terrifyingly trenchant dystopias we’ve seen onscreen in recent years, and — as I noted in my review of The Purge: Anarchy — probably the best satire on America since the grim futures that 1970s SF (think: Rollerball and Soylent Green) showed us.
But maybe that’s it. Maybe The Purge is just too uncomfortably on-point to embrace on the level of mere entertainment. These movies have been so unsettling partly because they haven’t felt so very far removed from reality… and reality has kept moving in their direction since the first film, which appeared only three years ago in 2013. Election Year suddenly feels a lot less farfetched in the era of Donald Trump, presidential candidate, than it might have felt last September, when returning writer-director James DeMonaco (Assault on Precinct 13) started shooting, when Trump was still a bad joke with no chance of winning the nomination. But fast-forward to one month after Election Year was released in the US, and candidate Trump was publicly speculating whether “Second Amendment people” could “do” something about Hillary Clinton. That’s very nearly the premise of Election Year. If DeMonaco were actually writing speeches for Trump and directing his rhetoric, he couldn’t have been more prescient.
This time out, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell: Lost, Nurse Betty) is running for president on an anti-Purge platform… and she has a lot of support. The New Founding Fathers of America — the Christian fundamentalist party that has now been in power for decades and instituted the annual 12-hour murder and mayhem spree that is the Purge — is afraid. So for this year’s Purge, the previous exemption for government officials — they have been off-limits on Purge night — has been lifted. Because they need to get rid of Roan. She has protection, of course, led by the one man we may presume cannot be corrupted by the NFFA: the same ex-cop whose basic human decency kept him from participating in the Purge in Anarchy even though he thought he really wanted to. He has a name this time, Leo Barnes (and he is again played by Frank Grillo: Captain America: Civil War, Zero Dark Thirty), and he’s now a Secret Service agent heading up Roan’s detail.
At first I wondered whether this man was indeed meant to be the same one from Anarchy, even though he’s played by the same actor, because the leap from ex-cop to Secret Service agent seems an unlikely one. But even more confusingly, this installment is set something like a dozen years after the events of Anarchy, and he doesn’t seem to have aged at all. (Roan’s backstory involves her being a teenager during the very first Purge night, 18 years earlier, and the first two movies were set over the sixth and seventh Purges. Which would also make her almost on the edge of being not quite old enough to run for president. Unless there’s been yet another Constitutional amendment to change that.) Still, none of that is completely implausible, and there’s even a case to be made for the apparent lack of technological and cultural advancement in America over this period as a sort of commentary on the nation’s stagnation under the NFFA. On the other hand, one small factor in the stage-dressing for Election Year is the sudden appearance in the US for Purge night of “murder tourists” from overseas. A big deal is made about how this is the first time such an influx has occurred, which does seem implausible: surely it would not have taken 18 years for non-American sociopaths to jump at the chance to literally get away with murder.
So I wonder if this is a sloppiness that indicates that the Purge franchise has itself stagnated a bit. An alternate universe such as this one will inevitably run out of steam at some point, and this could be starting to happen. (I like that DeMonaco continues to shepherd his unique vision; how often does that happen with a franchise? But perhaps a few fresh ideas from someone else would be smart to bring onboard if there’s a fourth chapter.) There isn’t as much radically surprising or as provocative here as the previous films provided… though that could just be because reality is oh-so quickly catching up to it. But there’s still plenty to appreciate. There’s a bit more hope in this one, as represented by Laney (Betty Gabriel), who operates an unofficial Purge-night ambulance service when all official services stand down. Even the civic weariness — and wariness — of deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson: The Final Destination, August Rush) and the enthusiasm of his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria: Max, Do You Believe?), who fall in with Roan and Barnes while they’re trying to protect Joe’s business, seem to speak to the possibility that voters and voting can still make a difference even in this totalitarian America.
But it’s DeMonaco’s brutal vision of an America not far removed from our own that remains the essential reason to subject yourself to it. This franchise is not cheerfully gory slasher fun. This is horror that says something authentically horrifying about how the darkest human impulses can so easily come under an umbrella of allegedly respectable legality. We snort with recognition with this America’s “predatory capitalism” (Joe’s Purge insurance premiums have gone through the roof just prior to the night, and he must pay up or face losing everything). We gasp in shock at bold, potent, awful imagery that is as much out of the past as it is out of a terrible future: women in diaphanous clothing dancing almost religiously around a tree from which lynched bodies hang. Election Year again has a rough unpolishedness that may be a practical upshot of its low budget but which serves as an antidote to slicker genre entries: The Purge movies, unlike many horror flicks, take no pleasure in the nightmare they are depicting, or in warning us that we are closer to this now than we ever have been.
• The Purge review: good, decent, patriotic violence
• The Purge: Anarchy movie review: standing up to power and privilege
• The First Purge movie review: a ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ for #BlackLivesMatter