Over the course of three films, "The Purge" franchise has continually been more successful as provocative, food-for-thought allegory than straight-up horror, its alternate-reality premise of an annual 12-hour period where all crimeincluding murderis rendered legal nothing if not a unsettling knockout. In 2013, still years away from the racist, sexist, xenophobic, hate-mongering host of "Celebrity Apprentice" becoming a presidential nominee, such a conceit still seemed far-fetched. In 2016, maybe a little less so. A further-adventures sequel to 2013's tastily microcosmic "The Purge
" and 2014's larger-scaled, L.A.-set "The Purge: Anarchy
," "The Purge: Election Year" finds returning writer-director James DeMonaco taking shrewd advantage of the country's currently contentious political climate. He plays directly into the hands of his target audience by whipping up a scathing parable on race, equality, socioeconomic strife, and religious hypocrisylofty ambitions that go a long way toward smoothing out the film's structural and editorial weaknesses.
In the not-so-distant future, the presidential primaries are in full swing and hopeful candidate Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is in a dead heat against her top opponent, a New Founding Fathers of America minister (Kyle Secor) desperate to retain the country's status quo. Roan, who was the sole survivor of a Purge Night family massacre eighteen years earlier, is adamant in her belief that there are more moralistic and peaceful ways to control the U.S.'s crime rate than a yearly homicidal free-for-all. The NFFA leaders, however, are livid over the prospect of losing what they have deluded themselves into believing are their God-given rights. Before the night is over, they will directly target Roan for assassination, sending her and head of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) on a treacherous trek through the streets of Washington, D.C. In their fight for survival, their paths ultimately cross with a group of sympathetic blue-collar allies, deli owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson), his longtime employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), and van-patrolling medical assistant Laney (Betty Gabriel).
Like its predecessors but perhaps even more so, "The Purge: Election Year" is a thematically loaded conversation starter. DeMonaco doesn't hold back, serving up one metaphoric dish after the next as his imperiled, grievously dismayed protagonists strive to change public opinion and overturn the New Founding Fathers' heretical control. The immediate order of business, though, is living long enough to make this difference. Looking out a van window as purgers hang innocent civilians from trees, Charlene Roan is in disbelief over what she sees. "How the hell did it get to this?" she mutters, her words likely speaking for many audience members. If this is a brutal R-rated action picture in theory, it is also suitablyand understandablyangry, its heroes searching for honorable solutions even as there is little way to escape with one's hands clean.
Setting aside the film's plentiful substance and cumulative potency, this is another imperfect entry in a series that has yet to take its great ideas and translate them into a truly great movie. Too many supporting characters and too many plot threads tend to bog down the pacing; the picture has a start-and-stop rhythm that should have been tightened, particularly in the second half as the action slows to a crawl in an underground safe house. Not helping is DeMonaco's decision to do away with the countdown aspect of "Anarchy
." Here, there is no direct mention of what year it is (we can guess it is roughly 9 years after the events of the previous sequel
's 2023 setting) and no establishing markers as to how far into the night the characters are (the annual purge runs from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.). The D.C. location is perfect for this particular story, but with the exception of establishing shots it rarely looks like Washington (unsurprisingly, Rhode Island stands in for the nation's capital). If the seams definitely show on occasion, the urgency of Roan's causeparticularly her belief she can break through to the American public and win the election without a militarized opposition force sinking to the NFFA's level and murdering her rival candidateis passionate and rousing.
As Senator Charlene Roan, Elizabeth Mitchell (2006's "Running Scared
") appears too soft-spoken to believably pass for a Presidential hopeful, but brings a sincerity and gravity to her pleas for peace. Making a return engagement is Frank Grillo's (2016's "Captain America: Civil War
") tough yet tender Leo Barnes, a man who has turned to doing good in the world following the tragic death of his young son. And, as the savage, sanctimonious minister, television veteran Kyle Secor may be the film's most chilling element, preaching to his brainwashed, blood-thirsty NFFA congregation as their terrified prey await their horrible fates.
"The Purge: Election Year" comes equipped with memorably nefarious imagery (a back-alley guillotine, anyone?), snapshots of a terror so unimaginable it makes no difference that it happens only one night per year. One marauding group of purgers dressed in patriotic costumes (Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, an original founding father in a powdered wig) are sadly underutilized, only in one scene despite their conspicuous placement in the marketing campaign. Meanwhile, a vicious gang of teenage girls (led by Brittany Mirabile's psychotic freak-bride) targeting Joe's deli create a more prominent and riveting threat, Miley Cyrus' upbeat pop song "Party in the U.S.A." introducing their arrival to unforgettably twisted effect. Their comeuppance is spectacular. While an embrace of its more surrealistic horrors and less reliance on familiar action-flick theatrics would be a smart next step if a fourth installment comes to pass, coal-black satire "The Purge: Election Year" leaves viewers with plenty to consider and ponder. With any luck, this fictional tale's hopeful closing disposition will prove to be a real-life prophecy.