The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Set two years after Anarchy, The Purge: Election Year concerns a world very similar to ours. There is, however, one very big difference. On one night a year, all crimes – including murder – are legal for twelve hours. By the time Election Year rolls around, the Purge has been a staple of American culture for going on twenty years. This entry in the series concerns Senator Charlie Roan, the first person to seriously threaten the existence of the Purge, and the people who get sucked into her orbit on the titular night. It’s a wild, nasty ride all the way, and entirely unafraid to target American politics – and politicians – with its story.

I’ll be honest up front: the Purge series is one of my all time favorites and I think Election Year is the best horror movie I’ve seen this year. Whether it holds up past July is another thing all together.

Election Year is an ambitious feature, tackling on more world-building , characters, and carnage than ever before. Previous entries in the series had focused on the experiences of individual characters versus society as a whole, an ambitious jump for any film – let alone horror – to make. Election Year switched mostly to hand-held cameras and an abundance of close-up shots, keeping the viewer focused tight on the characters even as the story stretched out further with its implications. For the first time in the series, the characters have a chance to do more than survive the night: they have an opportunity to strike back. The means in which they chose to do so create the central conflict of the story. Do the people, largely poor and non-white, wait for politics to eventually turn? It’s already been twenty years. Or do they resort to the same violence that has been used against them? Can peaceful resistance ever work against a foe that is gleefully unafraid to murder their opponents, and any attempt at resistance is labeled as an attack on both national sovereignty and individual freedoms?

As I said, the allegory in this film is about as subtle as a hammer. And you know what? That’s good. Election Day has something to say and doesn’t beat around the bush.

This is a film about a female presidential candidate fighting against the systematic oppression – and indeed execution – of poor, marginalized people. She is standing up to a system that justifies itself through religion and by adopting a historical narrative that distorts the facts for their benefit. Throughout the film, she is repeatedly saved and protected by a black businessman (and former gang member), a Mexican immigrant, and a black woman. Hmm. What could the filmmakers possibly be gong for here?

Well, let’s just say it’s no coincidence that the tagline for Election Year is “keep America great.” Remind you of anybody?

I could take a long time going through the minutia of Election Year‘s politics, but that will be for another time. Sufficient to say that it’s interesting, and very relevant to the current political climate.

However, as interesting as its ideas are, Election Year gets bogged down by them in spots, choosing to develop concepts rather than people. The weakest link in the story is the character meant to draw everything together: Charlie Roan. The problem is that she’s not a character so much as a concept that the film – and characters – can build up or demonize as they wish. The fact that she happens to be a person underneath her ideals is brought up briefly, but never really explored with any depth. This becomes a problem later on, when she meets up with some of her constituents who are carrying out her politics in a decidedly violent fashion – and using her name to justify it. There would be an excellent place for Senator Roan’s politics to collide with Charlie Roan the character, except that the latter never really shows up. She’s sympathetic enough, but never undergoes any character development or arc. This is frustrating, since the film is centered on her and follows her storyline at the expense of far more interesting characters.

In essence, what was Anarchy‘s greatest strength is one of Election Year‘s bigger problems. The Purge series has done its best work as a character piece that explores larger societal themes through the experiences of individuals. The audience cares for the characters, thus they become invested in the world that those characters inhabit. In Election Year, it feels like the filmmakers became more interested in the world than the people inside it, focusing on an underdeveloped lead and Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, already established from Anarchy.

While I’m a fan of Grillo’s, I didn’t find his character as compelling this time around. Like Roan, Barnes simply doesn’t have a character arc. He has some interesting moments of reflection and banter early on – especially concerning his personal history with the Purge – but those threads are never tied together.

All and all, Election Year isn’t quite as well written or polished as Anarchy. It’s good, it’s a hell of a lot better than most horror films you’d see in theaters these days, and it’s got some interesting things to say. The action is solid, there are some genuinely well-timed jump-scares, fun characters (just not the leads), and some truly excellent cinematography. The costume department also deserves a shout out for delivering a lot of understated but genuinely horrifying pieces. The Purge: Election Year is a good movie. But, for better or worse, the ideas swallow the story in more than a few places.

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