From the Archives: The Purge: Election Year review

From the Archives: The Purge: Election Year review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

In the post-The Strangers boom of middling home invasion horror entries, The Purge provided the highest concept: What if the American government sanctioned a 12-hour lifting of every law on the books? This device mainly provided for the original film’s driving antagonistic force. It provided a reason for the protagonists to stay inside their home and a reason to regard everything outside as a threat. On a smaller scale it also provided a bit of social commentary regarding a class divide in that the ability to afford relative safety from the yearly purge is a social privilege. It’s an interesting notion indeed, but it’s hardly the center point of the film, which chose to focus mainly on a single family’s fight for survival. In the follow-up film The Purge: Anarchy, the filmmakers abandoned the home invasion conceit to answer the question that fans as well as detractors of the original film had both been asking: What does the purge look like at ground level? By following a handful of people who, for a variety of reasons, have found themselves stuck outside on the most dangerous night of the year we got to explore this concept in full. We were also introduced to two very important elements. First is the character of Sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). He’s important partially because he becomes the connective tissue of the series from here on out, and also because he represents our first look at the culture resultant from the purge. He’s a man who lost loved ones during a previous year and plans to use this year’s free pass to get revenge. It gives the movie a smart commentary on the cycle of violence and also gives us the best Punisher movie we’ve ever gotten. Second, The Purge: Anarchyintroduces the idea that the government not only recognizes the class divide hinted at in the first film, but may also be taking advantage of it to eliminate members of the lower classes and reduce what they have deemed a drain on civic resources. How prescient. It’s rather hammy commentary hidden under blood and guts and scares, but isn’t that what put so many great exploitation filmmakers on the map?

And now we have The Purge: Election Year. Set a few years after the previous entry, Election Year follows the further adventures of Leo Barnes and digs deeper into the America which has developed as a result of the purge. Barnes has taken a job as the head of security for Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). Roan lost her entire family on purge night 20 years prior and has since devoted her life to helping America reclaim its soul. She wants to end the purge, and the group who created it, The New Founding Fathers, are feeling threatened by her grassroots presidential campaign. The NFFA, as they are known, are not only tied to the current presidential administration, but have also bonded with powerful religious entities. This and the fact that they are named after a group of historical activists lends the obvious comparison to our world’s Tea Party, and its connection to the religious right.

But the real world comparisons don’t stop there. The extended cast consists mostly of blue-collar people of color. There’s Joe (Mykelti Williamson), a deli owner/community supporter who has just lost his “purge insurance” to unfairly spiked rates. He and his business partner Marcos (Joseph Julian Sora) are camping out on the roof of the deli to protect it from looters. Meanwhile, former gangbanger Laney (Betty Gabriel) is seeking personal redemption by cruising the streets in an armored vehicle to offer medical aid to the injured. These stories provide not just added plot and a bigger body count, but a further exploration of how an event like the purge, by nature, affects the economically disadvantaged to a much larger degree than it does those of wealth. Yes, it’s hammy commentary yet again, but it works.

When government hitmen attack Senator Roan all of the plot lines begin to intertwine, resulting in a citywide cat and mouse slasher adventure that doesn’t let up on tension. Not even a little. There are effective jump scares littered throughout as well as welcome moments of clever humor. Despite the sometimes silly dialogue, these characters are all considerably fleshed out – a commodity in the horror genre – and it’s easy to find oneself truly caring for them. A palpable sense of dread hangs over the entire film, and writer/director James DeMonaco effectively uses it to give life to a terrifying environment. Every moment feels exposed, as if something can go wrong in an instant, and it often does.

Gorehounds like myself will be disappointed in the lack of squibs for scenes that so desperately need them, but often the sheer brutality of what is happening on screen more than makes up for it. A lot of the violence is played for “vengeance humor” and it’s in these moments that the audience cheered and groaned appropriately, in keeping with the exploitation fashion. DeMonaco was the scribe behind the passable remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and the influence of John Carpenter is apparent from the get go. More on this shortly.

The Purge: Election Year bests its predecessors by bringing the commentary closer to the surface (having the fortune of being released in an election year certainly helps), and using the concept of the purge to pull the lens back even further on our culture. The Purge focused on just one family, and Anarchy focused on one town, but Election Yearfocuses on the entire country. It’s pretty ambitious for a film with a prime directive of delivering cheap thrills.

purge-postAnd that’s what makes it so special. I once again lean into my John Carpenter comparison. The social commentary in The Purge: Election Year is ham-handed and on the nose, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Hammy is good. Great, even. A film like Spotlight won all of the awards, and even though it was brilliant, we’ve all but forgotten it less than a year later. Yet a movie like They Live – which paints its commentary in broad strokes and then bludgeons you over the head screaming “DO YOU GET IT?!?!” – outright defies being forgotten. It refuses NOT to be talked about decades later. Now, The Purge: Election Year is no They Live, but it’s in this spirit that, even if it’s not to your taste, it demands your respect and consideration. So many horror/thrillers are happy to deliver surface level thrills, and that’s fine, but this tight little trilogy has aimed to do more, and it’s this third entry that did it best.

The Purge: Election Year opens today in Philly area theaters.

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