Purge and Purify: Looking Back on ‘The Purge: Election Year’

Going from The Purge (2013) to Anarchy (2014) was perhaps the biggest leap forward in quality of any franchise ever, although The Road Warrior (1981)‘s step forward from Mad Max (1979) and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)‘s step backwards from Ouija (2014) are certainly contenders for that distinction as well.  The franchise went from being an intimate home invasion thriller where familial infighting draws the murderous intentions of roving murderers set against the brilliant conceit of an annual night where all crime is legal and all emergency services are unplugged to a diverse, political and downright revolutionary franchise whose apocalyptic society is a dark reflection of our own convulsive present.  And beyond simply refocusing Blumhouse’s horrific efforts onto a timelier subject, it also exploded outward in terms of the scale and complexity of its narrative: following an eclectic group of inner-city inhabitants caught outside on Purge night and desperately trying to make it through the evening in one piece.

Since the trick of scaling the whole proceedings up wouldn’t work again (at least by itself), franchise writer-director James DeMonaco did the only other thing that he could do: he simply did everything better than before.  The script was better written.  The characters were better developed.  The kills were better choreographed.  The action-horror set pieces — now the dominant franchise draw — were made more elaborate and more overt in their political bent.

The third film, subtitled Election Year, was released on 4th of July weekend during a monstrously contentious presidential election year.  And the film’s most seminal character, anti-Purge presidential candidate Charlie Roan is an obvious physio-ideological stand-in for real-life presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, with her political rivals being an ultra-conservative party of rich white men that uncannily resemble the Republican party itself (eve more so as time goes on, if such a thing is even possible).  Not only does everything work on its own merits, but it feels to be every inch the kind of scathing political critique that this franchise was made to be.

After being the only surviving member of her family one fateful Purge night, young Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Roan) rose through the ranks of national politics to become not just a senator, but the face of the country’s anti-establishment, and anti-Purge, majority: the poor, downtrodden majority of the country that the Purge was engineered from the ground up to kill and disenfranchise disproportionately compared to the advantaged few.  Fearing an electoral loss in the face of her swelling popularity, the New Founding Fathers — the nation’s ruling regime and ultra-conservative architects of the Purge itself — change the law, which previously exempt high-ranking government officials like themselves or Roan from the night’s festivities, to be free game for the slaughter.  They furthermore orchestrated a hit squad to take out Roan under the guise of everyday purging thus ensuring their continued stranglehold over national politics.

Although she survives the initial attempt on her life, Senator Roan is stranded on the purging streets of Washington DC: at the mercy of both random purgers looking to purify themselves for the coming year as well as paramilitary death squads combing through the city for her and her alone.  Thankfully, she is paired up with Sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), the protagonist of Anarchy, her loyal and ruthlessly efficient head of security.  As they make their way through the pandemonic capital, teaming up with whatever stray passer-byes they come across, they know all too well that their survival is all that stands between the nation and its total destruction.

Although Anarchy made the first film’s subtext the explicit text of the film, Election Year represents both an evolution and more perfect realization of that vision.  The D.C. setting and presidential Purge masks are the perfect creative springboards for both the franchise’s greatest kills and killers.  One memorable scene shows a fiery, corpse-strewn Lincoln Memorial with each column spelling out PURGE it what is unquestionably human blood.  Another subplot shows a group of foreign “murder tourists” — non-Americans who fly in just so they can kill — appropriating the franchise’s grim Americana: dressing up as the “old” founding fathers and indiscriminately murdering poor Americans in the street.  At every conceivable opportunity, the film leans hard into the inherent insanity of its premise, playing it out on as large and bloody a stage as they can imagine.

Election Year thankfully learns from Anarchy‘s narrative excesses that its strength lies in the individual merits of any one plotline, rather than on the prevalence of them.  So although the film’s script feels in some ways scaled-back from the packed-in second installment — which easily had enough in its pages for half a dozen sequels — the few storylines that it chooses to focus on are all satisfactorily fleshed out: wringing every last ounce of sanguine terror and grim satire that it can before picking up the next narrative thread.  Its selection of returning characters from previous movies was smartly cultivated, as was its creation of new ones to go along with its transplanted D.C. setting.  And yes, every stab, shot, explosion and insidious trap is just as viscerally satisfying in practice as it is on paper.

While Election Year seemed to close off the possibility of Purge sequels, it was as obvious at its release as it is now, in the wake of franchise newcomer The New Purge (2018) and ahead of the TV series spinoff The Purge (2018), that this simply is not the case.  From post-Purge sequels in which the freshman regime is overwhelmed by right-wing citizens carrying on the tradition of the holiday themselves to pre-Election Year prequels detailing the events of every Purge night in-between, there is plenty of ground yet to cover in this franchise.  But as far as I’m concerned, this movie right here will forever be “peak Purge.”

Rating:  4/5

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