THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR
Directed by James DeMonaco
Starring Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Betty Gabriel
out of ****
I would say director James DeMonaco discovering that the premise of THE PURGE trilogy could function as socioeconomic allegory was the series’ downfall, but the original installment was devoid of such fodder and still ended up being awful.
The premise of the series – in which one day a year all crime in the US is legal -originally served as a plot device for a shitty home invasion thriller starring Ethan Hawke. The Purge (2013) was a small-scale story of a rich family and their incompetent patriarch (Hawke), who were wealthy enough to afford a security system worthy of Fort-Knox, but were not smart enough to spend that money on a vacation during The Purge to literally anywhere else in the world. I found the first iteration to be a completely disposable exercise in brutality, which lost my interest as soon as the purgers got into the house. Though the original was bad, it didn’t annoy me quite like Election Year did.
Sandwiched in between these two duds was the enjoyable Purge: Anarchy. Starring the underrated Frank Grillo (underrated even by me apparently, since when I originally wrote this review I called him Mike) as a vigilante seeking vengeance against his son’s murderer while triumphantly disposing of purgers who get in his way. The second installment was a dystopian throwback action flick that would have been right at home on VHS in 1985. The fact that DeMonaco took 10 minutes to identify a common sense notion, that the Purge would overwhelmingly hinder the poor and disenfranchised, was not really what made Anarchy good; which is unfortunate because he is now doubling down on this notion and extrapolating it out to a full film.
Seemingly fooled by his own perceived cleverness, DeMonaco has framed an entire entry of the series around this socioeconomic concept that a 16 year old would probably consider thin. Grillo returns as Sergeant Barnes, now head of security for Senator/Presidential Nominee Charlie Roan (the striking Elizableth Mitchell), who witnessed the murder of her family on Purge night 18 years earlier. Managing to be the only person who could ever survive such an ordeal and remain a functioning member of society; Senator Roan you can imagine has a bit of a problem with what has now become an annual tradition, spanning generations. Barnes & Roan’s opponents are the political party The New Founding Fathers, who we learn have secretly constructed and worshiped the purge as a means to keep poor people off the streets, and keep welfare costs down. This notion that from a government spending perspective, it’s preferential for every major American metropolis to ostensibly incur damages equitable to a record natural disaster, than it would be to just pay these social welfare programs for the poor is ludicrous – without factoring in the economic damages to small businesses in every major city who have their stores ransacked or buildings set ablaze (also the hundreds of thousands of people who wouldn’t be showing up to work the next day due to Purge related injuries for example death).
The New Founding Fathers decide the best way to combat their rival’s ascension and her passionate opposition to carnage, is to publicly execute her on Purge night; a strategy I’m not too certain is going to win over fence-sitting voters who haven’t quite bought into the Purge concept yet. They revise the clearance levels of acceptable murder victims to include Gov. officials (previously exempt from prior Purges) – not really taking into account that this would leave them equally vulnerable. Why the NFF even need to do this is beyond me, as the complete chaos of the 12 hours would certainly make identifying the perpetrator of a specific crime impossible.
Across town a convenience store owner Joe (the always great Myeketi Williamson) has just been told that the premium for his store’s Purge insurance policy has been increased exponentially – at this point thoughts of my day job burst through the movie theater’s walls as my eyes rolled backwards out of my head and down the center aisle. This Purge premium must have been worth close to the value of his store, which made me wonder why enter into such an agreement to begin with. Of course Joe without his insurance policy, must stick behind to defend his storefront. You wouldn’t think that on a night when all crime is legal and you could loot from anywhere, a store where 90% of the merchandise doesn’t exceed $9.99, would be an ideal target but you’d be wrong in whatever alternate-reality this purports. Barnes and the senator eventually end up at Joe’s store, getting in contact with the militarized Purge objectors who are (not so) secretly plotting to assassinate Senator Roan’s NFF party opponent. The leader of the resistance asks Barnes’ apoplectically how he stumbled upon their plans, to which Barnes just walks by him because Grillo I am assuming refused to utter the line from the screenplay “you left the door to your office open and all the plans on the wall.”
It may seem like I’m nitpicking at plot holes you could spot from the lobby, but I wouldn’t be if this movie weren’t stomping around begging to be taken seriously. Completely devoid of humor (with the exception of a brilliantly timed Miley Cyrus music cue), dialogue between sequences of carnage consists of characters exchanging allegorical anecdotes and spelling out the subtext to each other. This nauseating self-importance from a film born of a torture porn home invasion thriller tends to encourage the viewer to look around and notice logical fallacies. To top it all off, Election Year looks awful – the dark muddy nighttime scenes feel as if the characters are running through a maze on a soundstage, occasionally zooming out so we can see the streets of Los Angeles and other cities make guest appearances as Washington DC. The Lincoln Memorial is at one point shown as vandalized in blood (as if someone wouldn’t have taken ole’ Abe’s head home as a souvenir a dozen Purges ago,) to remind us of where we’re supposed to think this is taking place. The few moments of daytime are punctuated with fluorescent lights outside of each window, and a shot of Betty Gabriel walking down the street as a single stream of rain localizes over her like a scene from The Truman Show made me giggle out loud. The brutality is relentless and not particularly well filmed. Purge Election Year also takes a big swing and a miss on something that would be obvious fodder for commentary, the nation’s obsession with guns and the effect of gun violence – but I guess it’s hard to wag a finger at that issue when you’re reveling in it. This is insipid trash.