It is amusing that our most interesting genre franchise is from Platinum Dunes (American production company created in November 2001 by filmmakers Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form. The company specializes in horror films, particularly remakes) and the producers of all those generic supernatural movies you are getting tired of, but what is even more notable is that so far, each Purge film has improved on the one before it, a rarity for any franchise but particularly unusual within the horror genre. It is not as big as the leap from the first one to Anarchy, but by not-too-subtly zeroing in on our current Presidential election, The Purge: Election Year gets a few digs in at our current landscape, and never loses sight of this issue. What could have just been window-dressing for another Judgment Night-esque all night chase through the city (as the “Purge” concept itself was to the first film’s otherwise routine home invasion flick) remains its primary focus all the way until the end, giving it a leg up on its superficially similar predecessor.
Even if the setting was vastly different, it would be hard to forget about the previous movie since it also retains that one’s hero, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo). Having survived his attack thanks to the guy he was out to kill, he has changed his tune about Purge so much that he has become the head of security for controversial – but very popular – Presidential candidate Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is running on a promise to end Purge if elected. As shown in the trailer, her family was murdered on Purge night when she was a teenager, so there is little chance of her backing down – something that scares the “New Founding Fathers” (read: typical Conservative elderly white guys, though they throw in a Latino and a lady or two to mix it up) enough to plot to have her killed on Purge night this year. They are very protective of their racist holiday.
It would have been easy for writer and director James DeMonaco (continuing his role from the first two films, another rarity for horror) to use that as the setup and then leave the politics in the background while running through the usual action, horror moments as Elizabeth Mitchell and Frank Grillo try to survive the night (much like Frank Grillo’s vengeful quest was often forgotten in the last one as he protected others), but it is never long before there is another discussion of the repercussions this night has on people, and why it should stop. Charlie Roan is a “man of the people” type who never fails to stop to talk to someone about their own life, how they have been affected by Purge, etc., and the action culminates at the “New Founding Fathers” “Purge Mass,” where the perpetrators all meet in a church (led by a priest who seems like he teleported from a Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci movie) and ready their sacrifice of Charlie Roan. In an ironic twist, she is actually trying to save their lives from a giant massacre that Dante Bishop is planning to help ensure she wins the candidacy (she wants to stop them so her victory is a clean one, without making the “New Founding Fathers” folks into martyrs), a big improvement over my own cynical idea of how the movie would progress (which would have her ultimately forced to engage in Purging to save herself).
The politics even extend to the random acts of violence and “Purge vignettes” (the random little scenes we see that are unrelated to anything else but flavor up the reality of the situation) – rather than the usual scary masks the Purgers wear, this time a lot of them are adorned in costumes that are just scary versions of Uncle Sam, the Statue of Liberty, etc. The news shows a group of tourists who have come to America to join in the Purge for the first time, and our pursuers are equipped with drones that help track the good fellows every move. To his credit, James DeMonaco gets a little more subtle for other things (the wicked fellows all use assault rifles whereas the heroes never brandish anything heavier than a shotgun, for example), but whereas you could watch the first two for what they were at face value, there is no mistaking the political commentary going on here.
And because of that, I almost crave the movie was angrier about it. Modern horror films rarely have anything to say the way many did in the 1960s and 1970s, so if Purge movies are the sole source (at least on a mainstream scale) for socially minded genre fare, it would have been great if they actually named names instead of letting the audience draw their own comparisons. The “Minister” (the other main Presidential candidate) would not remind anyone of Donald Trump, really – in fact, we do not know too much about him at all beyond the fact that the “New Founding Fathers” is really calling the shots and letting him be their mouthpiece. His aforementioned dig at the gun control debate will probably go over the heads of many, and without getting into spoilers, the movie has a more optimistic tone than I was expecting – I sort of wanted the filmmaker to really let it all out, the way Serbian film’s filmmakers did about their own government via their warped movie. Not that optimism is a bad thing but again – with this bound to be the only horror film of the year with something to say, I would not have minded if some of its viewers left the theatre a little more riled up about what was going on instead of an affirmation that everything would be fine.
James DeMonaco does not skimp on the crowd-pleasing moments, however. Along with the optimism is a decidedly less grim story this time around; there are a number of good fellows in the film and many of them are left alive at the end, and no one really gets tortured or anything this time around, either (Elizabeth Mitchell gets tied up and a minor wound but is otherwise left unharmed). But when it comes to the villains, he goes all out – one Purger is hit by a car and shot with a shotgun at close range, and he even lets a bunch of Crips play hero at one point, having them lay waste to some of the “New Founding Fathers” hit squad (who have swastikas on their uniforms to lay it on even thicker). Mykelti Williamson also has a number of great lines (he is kind of a variant on Sam Jackson’s character from Die Hard 3), and with all due respect to Black Widow and Wonder Woman, the year’s number one female superhero is Betty Gabriel as Laney, a reformed troublemaker who now spends Purge night driving around in an armored ambulance, assisting the wounded and also firing back on Purgers if necessary.
And that is the other thing I enjoyed about this film – it opens up the reality of Purge night a bit more. In addition to her triage van (one of many in a network overseen by Bishop), we also see a truck driving around collecting the corpses, presumably to make everyone’s commute the next morning slightly less unpleasant. The foreigners give us a small taste of how the event is seen in other countries, and part of Joe’s subplot involves a massive rate increase on his Purge insurance – something I am not sure if they have ever addressed in the past. But that stuff is brief; murder is still the only crime anyone seems to commit when they can do anything they want, though there are some variations we have not seen, like a lady who kills her husband and instantly regrets it. There are still a million unanswered questions about how it works, but I like that with each film we get to learn a little more about the nitty gritty of it all, which I found fascinating and would almost rather watch than see another scene of Frank Grillo ducking his way through a street before killing some random Purger.
One of those unanswered questions is even more frustrating here than it was in the other two, however: the rule that says high ranking government officials are not viable Purge targets. This year, in order to curry favor with the populace (whose interest in the Purge is waning, albeit slightly), they have decided that they are fair game as well – but that means nothing since they all hide out in heavily armed fortresses anyway. It is not like our Senators and cabinet members are out wandering around on Purge night with “Sorry, You Can’t Shoot Me” signs, so I never understood why James DeMonaco included this exception in the first place. Besides, even if Purgers did somehow get access to Senator and so are they simply not going to shoot because it’s against the rules? How would the law even know to come after you once Purge was over, anyway?
Luckily, the film is set to nearly triple its budget with its opening weekend, so we can expect another Purge film down the road that will hopefully continue the trend of improving while also filling in the blanks a bit on how it all actually works. I am sure James DeMonaco has it all laid out in a notebook somewhere – it might be interesting to see him make photocopies of it and supply them to other filmmakers who might want to use the concept for their own idea. As I said in the other reviews, there is so much potential here, and he is only one fella – even if he made one every year, we might never get a full picture of how Purge works unless he has got some help. If Marvel can do two to three movies a year that cost hundreds of millions of dollars, I am sure Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes can pony up 10-15m more than once a year to fully develop this universe (or they could do a TV show or comic, I suppose). And at that low cost, they can also afford to be a little more biting, too – before someone else beats them to the punch.