Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: The Purge: Election Year

by Patrick Bromley
Just remember all the good the Purge does.

By the third entry in writer/director James DeMonaco's ongoing Purge series, the movies have gotten more interesting if not necessarily better. The Purge: Election Year is an angry swinging sledgehammer of a movie, filled with righteous indignation about class, government, economic inequality, racial injustice -- you name it. It is a relentlessly dark and violent film not in what it actually shows on screen but just in how it feels. As a movie, it's better than the frustrating original entry and a step down from 2014's The Purge: Anarchy (still the series' high water mark), but it makes up for its narrative and technical shortcomings with sheer ambition and outrage.

Picking up some time after the events of Anarchy, Election Year finds the great Frank Grillo reprising his role as Leo Barnes, an anti-Purge mercenary now working as the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate running on the platform of abolishing the annual Purge. This does not sit well with the New Founding Fathers, who change the rules of the Purge to remove immunity from government officials so that Senator Roan can be taken out on Purge night. In trying to keep Roan alive, Leo eventually hooks up with Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), a deli owner whose insurance rates were jacked up the day before the Purge, his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney, a Purge legend who now spends Purge night driving an armored ambulance.
Coming right off of Junesploitation (the annual month-long celebration of exploitation and genre films we hold on this site), it should be said that The Purge: Election Year is one of the purest modern exploitation movies to ever receive wide release from a major studio. It is sensationalistic, high concept, violent and driven by action. It is political and subversive. The characters are drawn in broad strokes. The acting is often wildly over the top. It takes the larger ideas at work and reduces them to their basest representations: lots of blunt messaging played out via people chasing and shooting one another. It's basically The Purge: Anarchy, in which a bunch of strangers band together to make it through the city on Purge night. The difference this time is that Grillo's character is driven not by revenge but by the need to protect the country's future. His character is basically stripped away in the process.

Don't worry -- he's still awesome, and if Jon Bernthal wasn't such a good choice to take over the role of The Punisher for Netflix, I'd still be screaming about how it's Grillo's gig to lose. But having discovered how well received Grillo was in the last outing, it seems as though DeMonaco has chosen to focus more on making him cool than on giving him a part to play. A lot of the movie gets caught up in being "cool," actually. Where once DeMonaco was able to compose a handful of truly striking images to convey the chaos overtaking the city on Purge night, now he's all too happy to stop the movie cold so that his camera might ogle a stunning bit of art direction or costume design. There's a terrific moment midway through the movie in which a car dressed end to end in Christmas lights pulls up blaring Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA" and a bunch of female Purgers get out dressed in what can only be described as post-apocalyptic Frederick's of Hollywood. It's a neat image until DeMonaco can't stop lingering on it again and again, piling on slow motion backlit shot after slow motion backlit shot. Eventually, the scene loses its power. We no longer feel in danger because we're just attending a Purge pageant.
While the movie is overdressed, at least it's effectively overdressed. A scene with a group of tourists who have traveled over from Europe to purge "like Americans" (one of several new ideas the movie introduces but then fails to really explore) showcases a number of different iconographically American costumes and masks, from Abe Lincoln to a Statue of Liberty with her face blanked out, each more nightmarish than the last. This stuff all looks great. Obviously DeMonaco agrees, as he once again dwells upon those images and even the marketing campaign has been built around them. But for all its beautiful ugliness, Election Year might also be the sloppiest of the Purge movies in terms of its construction. The rhythms of the editing jerk us around unintentionally, the dialogue is often patched over with looping and ADR, the expositional moments perfunctory at best. Here's a tip, movies: if you're going to show a presidential candidate giving a speech on TV, try to make it look like it does when a presidential candidate gives a speech on TV. It's not as though there's no frame of reference.

These are not issues that get in the way of enjoying the movie. I'm actually a little surprised at some of the critical response I've seen that's reacting to the movie as something not just bad but offensive, suggesting that the film is hypocritical in supporting the violent fascism it decries out the other side of its mouth. This isn't a message movie first and foremost, though. It is an action horror film designed to viscerally entertain us. Just because it is very relevant to what America is experiencing in this actual election cycle (whether it's the rise of Donald Trump, the stranglehold of the NRA...you name it), it is not designed to provide answers. It is merely expressing outrage -- a symptom of our times, not its cure.
The Purge franchise has become like the Saw series if all of the Saw movies were as good as Saw VI: entertaining trash with something real on its mind. Rather than just repeat the same story in sequel after sequel, I like that James DeMonaco keeps pulling back to provide more and more of the picture: we go from a single house in the first movie to a full city in Anarchy to now seeing behind the scenes at the people in power pulling the strings in Election Year. This is not a great film, but it does exactly what it wants to do and works well enough that I would gladly support another Purge movie if and when another one gets made. Election Year hints at where a sequel might go, and if DeMonaco can get it in theaters quickly I suspect it will be very relevant after this November. I hope not, of course, but hope's got nothing to do with it.


  1. What a shame, I had high hopes for this probably because of the over stylish imagery you mentioned I saw in the trailer, I'll keep an eye out for the Presidential speech, cheers

    1. Re-watching the trailer after reading this column the Slow motion arty shots stand out even more

  2. Have not seen it yet but boy that last line is good. I expect to see it soon.

    Hey, non Purge-related question here, but I've searched to no avail...
    do you guys know of a podcast in which you talk about Close Encounters? I'm pretty sure JB is on it. But i just watched it for the first time since i was like 9 or 10 and want to go back and revisit what you all said about it. Thanks!!

  3. My enjoyment of this movie was certainly helped by watching it on the last day of Junesploitation since this really is a modern exploitation movie in so many ways.

  4. I absolutely love Anarchy, and I was super excited to see this one. Unfortunately, we got to the theater right as previews were starting, and it was pretty packed. I was sitting pretty close to the front, and the intense shaky camera actually gave me motion sickness. I had to actually leave the movie. So, I'm looking forward to trying to watch it again in the comfort of my own home, far from the screen...