Hillary Clinton may not publically embrace it (much less employ it as a part of her media campaign), but The Purge: Election Year is most definitely in the bag for the Democratic nominee.
With unabashed glee, James DeMonaco’s third entry in his horror series pivots its dystopian sci-fi narrative around a Clinton proxy: Senator Charlie Roan (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell), a bleeding-heart blonde presidential candidate fighting on the side of (and with the support of) disadvantaged African-Americans and Latinos against The Purge, the annual evening in which anything—including rape, murder, and any other mayhem a deviant mind can devise—is legal. That she’s opposed in her quest by rival candidate Minister Edwidge Owen (Kyle Secor) and the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA)—an evil cabal of wealthy white guys in league with the NRA and insurance companies, as well as mercenaries boasting “white power,” Confederate Flag, and swastika-style uniform patches—only further underlines that, when it comes to this Nov. 8, The Purge is with Her.
As such, DeMonaco’s newest franchise installment is a direct extension of 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, which itself expanded upon the idea that The Purge, created as a way for the crime-ridden country to rehabilitate itself by letting citizens “purge” their worst impulses during one government-sanctioned night of bloodshed, is a tool used by white elites to profit from murder and eliminate lower-class people who are a welfare-and-healthcare burden on the economy. Focused on a group of strangers who are stranded in L.A. during the chaos, and who come into contact with malevolent forces as well as a band of rebels (who hijack the airwaves to preach insurgency), Anarchy played like a hybrid of The Warriors and They Live, with the great Frank Grillo’s grieving ex-military hardass Leo Barnes functioning as a 21st century variation on Escape from New York’s Snake Plissken.
Barnes is back for Election Year, which takes place two years after Anarchy during the height of election season. He’s now Roan’s head of security, though that job is made virtually impossible by her demand that she endure The Purge in her less-than-fully-secure brownstone home (a decision made so she appears just like her constituents). Unsurprisingly, the NFFA bribe some traitors to infiltrate her abode with the intention of kidnapping her, albeit to no avail. Narrowly escaping capture, Barnes and Roan retreat to the fiery streets of Washington, D.C., where they soon team up with deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Washington) and his shop boy Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), as well as former Purge legend turned altruistic medic Laney Rucker (Betty Gabriel)—all of whom are fervent Roan supporters.
Although it remains infatuated with gruesome brutality and inventive Rob Zombie-style Halloween masks, DeMonaco’s latest is an action-oriented affair that barely classifies as an actual horror film, except that it paints a portrait of future-America as a nightmarish wasteland in which the haves wield so much power they’ve managed to subvert the Ten Commandments and make wholesale slaughter legal. The best thing about The Purge franchise has always been the atmosphere of doom generated by DeMonaco’s slow-mo panoramas of homicidal costumed hordes strutting through metropolitan hellholes. Alas, Election keeps those moments to a relative minimum, all while amplifying the helter-skelter firefights and hand-to-hand skirmishes that the director continues to shoot in shaky-cam close-up.
What Election really cares about, however, are its politics, which are foregrounded to such an extreme extent that actual terror is negated. DeMonaco’s film is, first and foremost, a liberal rallying cry that makes no bones about its allegiance. The Minister and his cohorts are conservative Christian crazies who stage ritualistic murders in cathedrals (and, upon purging, share looks full of barely suppressed homosexual desire), and George Washington is appropriated as a symbol of vicious villainy. Meanwhile, Joe (who has pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass hanging on his wall) is a noble, selfless entrepreneur preyed upon by predatory insurers, Marcos is a Mexican immigrant trying to achieve the American Dream through hard work, and even the Crips (!) are ultimately helpful friends to our heroes. It’s true that, in the figures of Barnes and Roan, Election exhibits a white-savior complex. Yet in every other respect, it’s as left-leaning as big-studio projects come.
DeMonaco tries to complicate his story’s race and class dynamics by pitting Joe and Marcos against a gang of African-American females who, driving around in a car covered in Christmas lights and decked out in scary masks and stripper-style outfits, simply want to kill. Too bad the flip-side-of-the-coin gesture is a largely disingenuous one; Election is far less successful at (or interested in) muddying its waters by embracing contradictory ideas. Even when it comes to its most inspired “world-building” notion—namely, that foreigners have become jealous of Americans’ ability to purge, and are now traveling to our shores to partake in deviancy as veritable “murder tourists”—the film makes sure to paint these evil immigrants as white Europeans. South-of-the-border visitors, embodied by Marcos, remain inherently positive figures, lest DeMonaco’s overriding message become confused.
This isn’t to object to The Purge: Election Year’s specific politics; rather, it’s to balk at its simplistic monotony. Although it also eventually pulled its punches, Anarchy was a thornier effort more comfortable embracing hypocritical arguments. It was a fetid pulp stew that made you swallow all of its coherent and contradictory morsels whole. DeMonaco’s third film, on the other hand, is so determined to take a Democrat-ically inclined stance that it loses the paradoxical gnarliness demanded by its conceit. It operates as a one-note sermon about the virtues of the downtrodden and the wickedness of The Man—and, consequently, squanders an opportunity to say something engaging about mankind’s inherently multifaceted (if not outright twisted) nature.
Moreover, The Purge: Election Year is a victim of bad timing. That’s because, no matter how ably it tries to tap into a contemporary air of on-the-brink-of-disaster despair, and regardless of the pointed allusion made by its poster’s tagline— “Keep America Great”—Election went into production too early to take into account the true insanity of our present political reality. Which is to say, its lacking the very thing it most needs: a paradigm-upending proxy for the foreigner-insulting, torture-promoting, neo-Nazi-humoring demagogue who’s turned the 2016 presidential election into an apocalypse-courting event: Donald Trump.