Watching The Purge: Election Year is like listening to an explanation of American politics from your high-school aged brother who goes to class sometimes. The third entry in James DeMonaco’s cheap and profitable horror franchise centered around an annual 12-hour nighttime period in which Americans are permitted to indulge in “any and all crime” is as wannabe woke as ever. The movie vaguely gestures at Black Lives Matter-style activism responding to the disproportionate effect the Purge has on minorities (it’s hard to determine if the movie is referencing the theory of fundamental cause or just tripping over it), women in office, and conservatives whose hunger for money and power amounts to blood thirst. These things exist, says The Purge: Election Year. These things...are things. This movie is a deep dive into a shallow pool and watching it is slightly less pleasurable than breaking your neck (I’m guessing). Election Year’s social consciousness reads more like a coma.
It’s election year, so those in charge have sharpened their knives even more pointedly than usual. In order to subvert the Presidential campaign of liberal Senator Charlie Roan (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell in a catatonic performance), whose radical platform is ending the Purge, the conservatives in power lift the rule protecting government workers on Purge night—the better to kill their opponent legally with. This causes our barely sketched Hillary Clinton cognate to depend on the protection of her bodyguard Leo Barnes (played by Purge vet Frank Grillo). At one point, she calls him “boss” when he tells her to stay put. She says it in a way that suggests a wry acknowledgment of the irony, even though the message here is that even the most powerful woman in the U.S. needs a man to save her—multiple times (including once by remote-controlled exploding laptop). That is, in fact, among The Purge: Election Year’s clearest messages.
DeMonaco has created yet another stupid horror franchise that can be enjoyed as such, if you are so inclined. What I find appalling about this particular stupid horror franchise, as a lifelong fan of them, is how pretentious this one is. Previous decades’ hack-’em-ups seemed to understand exactly what they were, and when they concerned themselves with social issues, they tended not to overshoot by emphasizing them or exploring them in any substantial-aspiring way. The Purge, on the other hand, wants to say something—anything—so badly. It reminds me of a vacant think piece that ultimately exists to take up space. This is either reflective of DeMonaco’s grasp on communication, or he’s dumbing things down to speak to a young audience that usually loves this shit, but now wants to feel somehow justified watching it in a world where art is often critiqued more for its politics than its aesthetic execution of them.
DeMonaco’s vision of humanity is even bleaker than that. In fact, it’s even bleaker than you might expect for a movie fueled by blood. DeMonaco’s humans immediately skip right to murder when given free rein of the law. What of the rapists, the looters, the pyramid schemers, the dine-and-dashers? But even if you accept the idea that all human beings really want to do is murder, the franchise still collapses under the weight of its own logic. As with the abysmal previous entry, The Purge: Anarchy, whose coda found a survivor pulling into a sparsely populated hospital parking lot the dawn after the Purge had ended, as though there wouldn’t be lines around the block, still, from previous years’ mayhem, The Purge: Election Year visits an underground clinic on Purge night—a “safe space” as the BLM-esque activist calls it. It, too, is sparsely populated. There isn’t suffering or an evident loss of limbs or people in convulsions from being nearly killed. Nothing. It looks like a fairly calm underground clinic in a developing country. The Purge wants to have its cake and poison it too. Consistent with the incompetence on full display here, there are several scenes in this movie in which it’s raining yet sunny (in the portions of the movie that document the time leading up to the Purge).
There is something alluring in a subtext that divides its characters into those who hide during Purge night and those who murder (or at least attempt to do so). The world is full of passives and aggressives, subs and doms, bottoms and tops, DeMonaco suggests. If he wants to keep his finger on the pulse, he should explore this in the next entry, perhaps via those who don’t fall neatly into the binary—the mercurial, the versatiles, the Purge fluids. Just kidding—DeMonaco should most certainly not do this.
Because the story of an aggro man protecting a woman, who despite being a frontrunner for President has very little to say, is so inert, DeMonaco peppers his flick with some visually inspired set pieces highlighting the carnal creativity of his extras that his protagonists behold as they ride around in armored cars, peeping the depravity that comes but once a year. Highlights include a top-lit guillotine being used in an alley, and a backlit tree with bodies hanging from it as murderers dance underneath in chiffon. The best scene involves a bunch of young girls who roll up to a convenience store in a VW Bug adorned in Christmas lights. Wearing tutus and bearing cleavage, with automatic firearms in hand, they twirl around to a distorted version of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” For 30 seconds, the movie convinces you that even art is possible among all the misery.
The climax hinges on protecting the Hillary analog’s conservative opponent in the election, who’s unfortunately not a stand-in for Trump, but more of a Tea Party evangelical type named Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor). Someone realizes that his own people may assassinate him to make him a martyr and bolster their cause (thus win the presidency), and so the liberal anti-Purgers infiltrate the church where Owens is presiding on Purge night and attempting to conduct a human sacrifice. He is spared as the anti-Purgers shoot up a church with machine guns, killing dozens of their ideological opponents, as though that wouldn’t create a congregation of martyrs others could use to whine about how religion is now under attack. So that’s stupid.
And then, in this movie’s conclusion, we find out that Roan emerges victorious on Election Day, which happens to fall on May 26. So that’s even stupider.
As it sometimes happens during all-media screenings of big studio movies, the crowd in the screening I attended was a mix of critics and the general public—the latter group was almost entirely teenagers. At the end of this 105-minute movie, many of them applauded. As the credits rolled, the song booming in the theater was David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans.” Indeed.