When “The Purge: Election Year” begins with T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy” playing on top of the Blumhouse Productions and Platinum Dunes logos and then flowing diegetically into the film and appearing on a psychopath’s iPod, there’s a quick sense of uneasiness that this is going to go the Rob Zombie route of making a masked maniac seem cool. Surprisingly, not only does it sidestep any notion that these type of characters should be empathized with, but it sets a plot in motion that, for the first time in this series, makes complete sense.
In the opening, young Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) sits tied up to a couch next to her family and becomes the only survivor from the hands of this deranged killer. Eighteen years later, she is running for President of the United States, with her first order of business upon inauguration being to eradicate The Purge entirely. The New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) find her a threat to their candidate, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), and revoke the Purge Night rule that government officials are protected. Roan’s secret service agent Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) suggests putting her up in a safe house, but she insists on him and his men barricading her home and making it safe. “If I’m pent up in some mansion, I’ll lose votes,” Roan says.
In another part of town, shop owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) discovers that his insurance company has jacked-up his Purge coverage higher than he can afford, and he and his employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) decide to take damage control into their own hands for the night. Marcos believes that Roan is going to win and institute some real change, whereas Joe thinks she’s just another politician making broad promises she won’t be able to keep. Of course, there’s a double-cross amidst Barnes’ squad, which forces Roan and Barnes out into the street and into the company of Joe, Marcos, and Laney (Betty Gabriel), a former gang member-turned-EMT.
2013’s “The Purge” presented us with this fascinating concept about a dystopian society in which one night a year, all crime is legal, which has led to the national crime rate plummeting down to nearly zero. Unfortunately, the concept is all that film had going for it, as it merely applied said concept like an Instagram filter to a run-of-the-mill home-invasion thriller. The second entry (“The Purge: Anarchy”) was barely more successful, if only because the idea of taking the story out into the streets in an “Escape From New York” fashion fit the universe better than setting it in one location, with Grillo’s character standing out from the otherwise bland, one-dimensional ensemble.
Two years separate ‘Anarchy’ from ‘Election Year,’ and it seems to have made a huge difference. It’s as if writer/director James DeMonaco realized in this gap that an idea will only get you so far and decided to start exploring the societal implications a night like this would have on our country. As unsubtle as it may be, the film hits on truths of class disparity within a small group of characters. Joe’s animosity towards Roan and Barnes not only comes from a race difference, but because he has built himself up from nothing and it still hasn’t been enough, as evident by the insurance company taking advantage of him. That’s also an element of why ‘Election Year’ succeeds where previous entries haven’t: it provides the supporting characters with agency as opposed to just being fodder for the slaughter. Joe is protective of his shop because it’s a part of him, and he’ll do whatever is necessary to keep it safe. Williamson makes his character the most vital of the film’s emotional arc, as well as its much-needed comic relief.
DeMonaco has also grown comfortably behind the camera when it comes to staging set pieces. The previous films were choppy and it was almost impossible to tell what was happening. Here, along with DP Jacques Jouffret once again providing a gorgeously scuzzy sheen, the action is smoother (most notably the siege on Roan’s house and the film’s climactic piece in a church), and the quick cutting is used to create disorientation and ramp up tension as opposed to assuming that it’s the only way to cut action and that the tension will simply follow.
It would be easy to dismiss “The Purge: Election Year” as an accidental success. There’s no way that DeMonaco and company could have predicted the ugly circus sideshow of an election year we are having in 2016, but while it may be coincidental, labeling it accidental would take away from the craftsmanship and intelligence (blunt, but still smart) in the filmmaking. DeMonaco finally achieved what the goal of the first two films were, and what John Carpenter did so well in “Escape From New York” and “They Live” — slipping in satirical social commentary all wrapped in a grimy, B-movie package. It’s not high-art, but by keeping the budget low and the ideas sharp, the law of diminishing returns is questioned when it comes to “The Purge” series. Here’s hoping that the inevitable “Purge 4” proves that ‘Election Year’ is no fluke. [B]