James DeMonaco’s Purge series, about a near future in which all crime is legal for one annual 12-hour period, began as a disturbing setup for basic genre thrills: 2013’s franchise-starter was essentially a home-invasion thriller with a dystopian twist. By the time Purge: Anarchy rolled around a year later, the series had transformed into an agitprop extravaganza about our obsession with violence: Anarchy was a blood-soaked smorgasbord of 21st century American neuroses, with religious nuts, financial crooks and race-inflected-class warfare, all in a world where rich society doyennes salivated over gun models as if they were fine wines.
This embrace of a social conscience wasn’t opportunistic, exactly; the Rod Serling–esque concept of a society sanctioned to go mad was always there. But DeMonaco clearly understood what made this series singular. So now, the third film, The Purge: Election Year, consciously foregrounds what once was blunt subtext: It’s a movie about how the Purge is wrong, wrong, wrong. As such, it packs less of a punch; the writer/director has a lot to say, but this neo-grindhouse framework isn’t built for complexity. Still, the film is just bonkers enough to work.
At the center of the new tale is Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate who wants to end the tradition of Purge Night. (Her whole family was massacred some years ago, which is why she entered politics in the first place.) Running against the country’s New Founding Fathers — the sneering array of scotch-swilling, vampiric and pious old white men who instituted the Purge in the first place, in a not-so-veiled effort at population control — she is, perhaps needless to say, a marked woman. Luckily, she has trusty Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), the ass-kicking antihero of Purge: Anarchy, handling security for her.
As the annual orgy of bloodletting begins, the restrictions against killing high-level government officials are unexpectedly lifted, rendering Charlie fair game. After one brutal assassination attempt, she and Leo find themselves out in the streets, where they hide out with wise-cracking bodega owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), who is trying to protect his store against a group of glassy-eyed, bloodthirsty ... um, schoolgirls. But, like, they’re really crazy, really mean schoolgirls, and they have bedazzled AK-47s and cars tricked out with Christmas lights, and they playfully slap each other’s butts with flyswatters.
As in the previous film, there’s a scrappy, underground anti-Purge movement, this time led by charismatic guerrilla leader Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). Joe, the senator, Leo and Dante soon begin to collaborate; joining them is a tough-as-nails former street warrior named Laney Rucker (nicknamed “La Pequeña Muerte”), who now drives a triage van on Purge Night, shepherding the wounded and abandoned to safety.
It’s telling, of course, that most of the folks opposing the Purge are African-American or Hispanic, and that the powers that be are all lily-white. There’s nothing understated about the movie’s politics: The New Founding Fathers’ shock troops wear uniforms festooned with white power patches and Confederate flags; their leader has swastika tattoos. We’re told at one point that the Purge mainly serves to kill off the poor and line the pockets of the NRA. In TV news footage showing foreign tourists coming to the U.S. for “murder tourism,” one South African white guy starts yelling at the camera in Afrikaans. The only thing missing is a “Make America Great Hat,” but who knows, maybe I just missed it amid all the gunfire and explosions.
Unsubtle politics don't equal clear politics, of course. But as with other Purge movies, Election Year knows that it’s having its cake and eating it, too: luxuriating in the violence while explicitly denouncing it. In Anarchy, this two-facedness worked well because the film functioned mostly as an episodic, Dante-esque journey through a carnival of horrors, and also because Leo himself was out to purge — DeMonaco understood the base appeal of revenge against those who’ve wronged you, and he used that to toy with our allegiances.
This time, however, the director seems to hold Purge Night at a distance: He presents us with plenty of ghoulish and bizarre sights, not to mention gruesome violence. But it all feels like it’s being played for maximum strangeness, thus lessening its visceral impact. By contrast, the sights and sounds of the earlier films felt like monsters from our collective Id, disturbingly familiar and compelling. Ironically, DeMonaco is releasing this new one into a real-life political environment of unnerving tension and gonzo theatricality — but in some weird way, the previous films felt more prescient than this new one.
If The Purge: Election Year is ultimately still engaging, it’s largely because of the irresistibility of the basic concept itself. But this new movie also makes a pretty good case for why the series should end here: Things have not only come to their logical conclusion, but you get the curious sense that the filmmakers have run out of ideas.