The concept for THE PURGE has definitely been an interesting one to watch unfold. The films introduced the idea of a futuristic America where killing has become legal for a day in order to “release anger.” It’s a startling what if scenario as that very first film attempted to inform the viewers while not totally explaining how it all began. (Because it would probably be too hard of a process to detail due to its rather extreme nature.) The idea of the government using this annual Purge to eliminate the poor was a fascinating backdrop the first two films had, and is once gain explored in the latest installment, ELECTION YEAR. Director James DeMonaco continues to explore the intriguing idea while adding in some new concepts. It however doesn’t have the great quality of the first two.
As a young girl, Sen. Charlie Roan survived the annual night of lawlessness that took the lives of her family members. As a presidential candidate, Roan is determined to end the yearly tradition of blood lust once and for all. When her opponents hatch a deadly scheme, the senator finds herself trapped on the streets of Washington, D.C., just as the latest Purge gets underway. Now, it’s up to Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), her head of security, to keep her alive during the next 12 hours of mayhem.
The first Purge was a contained story: it took place entirely in a house. The viewer however was aware of what was going on in the outside world. It worked greatly, having not only a unique concept (the actual Purge) but ended up being one of the best home invasion stories of the modern generation. The second film naturally went bigger, showcasing up close what goes on in the streets of the annual Purge. It was a great followup, and one of the things I personally like about this series is that while there is of course a lot of violence, it isn’t overly excessive. The first two didn’t live in its violence, rather opting for more of disturbing look to it all rather than gore all over the place. It left much of the happenings to the imagination of the viewer, which can actually be more scary. Election Year brings the government plot full circle this time around, since it’s almost time for a new presidency. It contains some of that disturbing imagery the first two had while as stated earlier adding some new ideas to the mix. There’s a few problems to sift through however, one of which is the writing/cast.
The first Purge didn’t have fancy, notable characters. And that was the point: the story wanted to portray real people in a situation like this. That’s why the first film still stands above the rest. The second film’s cast weren’t written as well, but still not bad. The viewer still got a sense of realism from them. Election Year decided to bring in characters to the mix, not real people. For example, almost all of Joe’s lines are for comic relief. This was bizarre and unneeded. The first two films didn’t contain comedy, or at the very least not constant like with Joe. We have lines such as “I’m not a superhero…ah well, forget it let’s go get them.” The character at times took away from the serious nature of the story.
Another example is Laney. Now, I’m not saying she was a bad character but she is another instance of the film going for more of a summer blockbuster feel than serious dark thriller. After running over some Purgers, she stands over the dead bodies and says (this is the PG version I’m typing) “la pequeña muerte (her apparent nickname from back in the day) is back fools.” No one would say that in real life, it was purely written for a “hardcore” movie effect. This might work in a film like The Expendables, but not for an atmospheric story such as The Purge. Frank Grillo’s character from Anarchy makes a return here. He was definitely needed, because I don’t believe the cast would have been strong enough to hold the film together without him. Like the second movie, he’s an engaging focus.
The biggest new character is Senator Charlie Roan, whom is running for president with an anti-Purge campaign. She was definitely a likable character throughout the almost two hour run-time. The plot point of the government wanting to silence her from talking about anti-Purge sentiments was very interesting to watch as it was the main backdrop of the story. This also served as a reminder that one can make a difference when you stand up for the right thing. With that said, the writing doesn’t do the best job with showing how she’s able to win so many voters by the end. Based on the film it seems like most people would all be for the Purge continuing. That’s why the ending seems rather sudden and almost anti-climatic.
The writing continues to be more on the exaggerated side in some areas. For perhaps the biggest example we have these kids that want to attack a deli for not letting one of them steal a candy bar. These scenes go for laughter instead of a serious look from the viewer. This is mainly due to the main one of the group. When they arrive a second time, instead of the viewer being filled with anticipation it’s more, “Oh, these clowns again?” That’s one thing the film suffers from a bit, a lack of truly well written antagonists. The one on the film’s main poster sadly is just an expendable in the story. The minister was more jarring to watch than engaging. It however was interesting to see how easily people can justify actions, and the minister himself claiming (wrongly) that it’s a God-given right to Purge.
As for the new concepts, an interesting one was that apparently people travel from all over the world to Purge. The brief scene with people internationally arriving and being interviewed about coming to America was comedy actually done right. To once again mention questionable writing however was Laney’s plot point of driving around on Purge night helping people whom are injured. This isn’t a bad thing of course but for awhile the writing was very vague on what exactly she was doing. The clear cut answer should have been at the beginning.
The film takes place mostly on the streets like in Anarchy. As expected, we get to see some of the disturbing happenings on Purge night up close. Even then it felt like something was missing. The second film featured a lot more disturbing content as more often than not it was regular people that were trying to sadistically kill the cast. In Election Year it’s mainly just government officials whom we see trying to catch them. The story assumes that with the first and second films the viewer has enough knowledge of what transpires that we really don’t need to see much of Purge night. Because of this, the film sort of morphs into an “escape the the evil government chase movie” with the Purge as a backdrop.
This is not to say Election Year was a terrible followup. There are quite a few things to like. One of the greatest scenes was when we see the word “Purge” in bloodied letters over pillars where the famous giant statue of Abraham Lincoln sits. Not much technically happens in the scene but sometimes it’s the simple things which prove to be the most disturbingly atmospheric. The escape the house sequence was also intense. Although, it was completely obvious a betrayal was going to happen. (At the least, Ethan Phillips and Adam Cantor played that role well.) On a more positive note, the film once again succeeds in building up tension and genuinely creeping the viewer out with its unhinged mask designs. The intro for example started the film appropriately disturbingly. Later we see Joker-like masks and even a pig one. The soundtrack is solid. There’s nothing really standout about it but perhaps that was the point. In this type of situation music should only be used to complement a scene rather than be a focus.
Overall, Election Year ended up being a disappointing followup (and perhaps finale based on the ending) to the Purge series. This is mainly due to questionable writing, deus ex machina maneuvers (because of a random whistle the group is saved from getting beat up by a gang) and the non-realistic nature of some of the characters. Nonetheless, this is The Purge and there’s a lot to like. The concept is still fascinating to watch on screen. Although the excessive language was distracting at times. (I just don’t think people actually say some of the things often said here.) The ending, while a good closure technically, felt a little rushed. At the very least, credit must be given to Elizabeth Mitchell for delivering an honest, likable portrayal of her character Senator Roan. The interesting themes of government and law once again play into the premises well. Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right. It’s amazing how many people will justify their actions knowing inside they’re wrong yet using the law as a basis for its acceptability. That’s why one always has to take a stand for something that is right, even when everyone else is on the other side. This theme is perhaps the best aspect of the film.