When historians look back at 2016 to understand the firebrand populism that nearly engulfed our political system, they can skip the newspapers and cable news archives. All they need to do is watch The Purge: Election Year.
If you haven’t been initiated into the Purge phenomenon, the first thing you have to know is that these films have essentially created their own genre. It’s some combination of dystopian sci-fi, horror, blaxploitation, and social satire, all of which are spun out from a single, metaphorically-rich plot device. At some point in the near future, the U.S. government sanctions a single night a year in which all crime is legal. The 2013 original was a mostly-standard home invasion thriller, in which a group of rich, young psychopaths battle a nice middle-upper-class family, after they harbor a homeless person that the gang plans to murder for sport. But in 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy, writer/director James DeMonaco took the concept out for a spin. The action spilled into the streets, where a group of mismatched strangers tried to survive Purge night in the inner city. He also expanded on its themes, blending race, economics, and vigilante justice into a pure shot of politically radical popcorn cinema.
The political subtext rises to the top in Election Year, for better and for worse. It opens on a teenage girl, who is forced to watch her family be murdered on Purge night. Cut to 20 years later, when that girl has grown into Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a presidential candidate running on a pledge to shut down the Purge. It’s here that DeMonaco ties things to our particular moment in time. The Purge is no longer just a nifty horror movie conceit; it’s a metaphor for the pitched battle between the haves and have-nots. At the start of Election Year, it has become common knowledge that the Purge is really just a blunt economic tool, in which the government convinces poor people kill each other en masse, reducing the need for government services.
The process is run by a shady, whites-only cabal called the New Founding Fathers of America, who, in an early scene, sit in a shadowy room, shout their capitalist manifesto into the thick air, and make plans to end the anti-Purge sentiment sweeping the nation by assassinating Senator Roan on the next Purge night. Their plan is thwarted by her secret service agent (Frank Grillo), a survivor of Anarchy. Left to fend for themselves on the streets of Washington, the agent and senator team up with a down-to-earth deli owner (Mykelti Williamson), his Mexican immigrant protégé (Joseph Julian Soria), and a badass grown woman he used to mentor as a child (Betty Gabriel).
As usual, the narrative is thin and the characters one-dimensional. That’s okay. The bigger problem is that DeMonaco has brought his metaphor too close to home. Bringing the political subtext to the forefront may offer an initial burst of excitement—there is catharsis in seeing politicians actually try to kill each other, as we suspect that’s what they all want to do anyway—it offers diminishing returns. The chief pleasures of the first two films was in the space they left the viewer to contemplate their metaphorical implications; but when you make a political allegory that is actually set in Washington, it doesn’t leave any room for the viewer’s imagination.
The Purge: Election Year still works best when relying on its haunting imagery. Most of it is only glimpsed by his protagonists as they run through the city streets—like a terrifying back-alley guillotine scenario—which creates the sense of horrible things happening just off-camera. The violence between these parties is assumed, and that’s what’s so scary. Unlike, say, The Hunger Games (which boasts a startlingly similar plot, if you think about it), The Purge is honest about the violent tendencies that underpin America’s revolutionary politics. It assumes that the only way people can work out their differences is through the shedding of blood.
But, like some of our more straight-talking presidential candidates, we can admire its honesty and still be uneasy about its endgame. It defines those with whom we disagree in the broadest possible terms. It asks us to cheer when they get blown off the screen in increasingly gruesome ways. It leaves you feeling unsettled, excited, and vaguely murderous.
In any other era, it would make a tidy profit and quickly be forgotten. In 2016, it might just be the movie of the year.
The Purge: Election Year opens tonight in theaters everywhere.