The original Purge film is perhaps the worst execution of an interesting premise that I have seen. Here we have a fictional universe in which for one day a year, all crime is made legal for 12 hours, a fascinating concept that the audience immediately wants to explore. Yet in the 2013 original, we are confined to one house the entire time, and what we get is little more than a standard home invasion thriller bogged down by the dumbest kids in history.
But The Purge: Anarchy was a surprising step up, delivering exactly what we all wanted out the first time around. Here, we see how the Purge plays out throughout an entire city, following several characters trying to survive and learning more about how this universe would function. It’s packed to the brim with cool world-building elements, such as the idea that terminally ill people can volunteer themselves to be purged in order to secure money for their families. The worst parts of the movie, though, were the scenes in which James DeMonaco tries to turn this whole thing into social commentary, as the class warfare metaphor is so ridiculously on the nose that we can’t help but cringe.
Sadly, The Purge: Election Year only doubles down on those political themes, and this time around, it is even sloppier and less subtle than I could have possibly imagined.
Election Year for the first time reveals what the American government looks like in the Purge universe, and it is so stupid you may be compelled to do further research to ensure that I’m not kidding around here. Prior to this, we basically assumed that it is some sort of a dictatorship and that the New Founding Fathers of America essentially took over the country and are running a repressive regime in which nobody can do much about the yearly tradition where everyone murders each other. It’s already a bit silly, but we can accept it as a sort of weird Hunger Games style future society.
But nope, Election Year reveals that 2020s America operates basically exactly like modern day America; there are still elections, senators, and presidential debates, and in a few scenes real footage from the floor of congress is used. So hang on…the audience is actually meant to get on board with the idea that a yearly murder ritual is not something that was thrust upon the American public in a government takeover, but it was just passed through the normal legislative process, upheld by the Supreme Court, and everyone was okay with it until now?
Yeah. This third movie revolves around a senator, played by Elizabeth Mitchell, who runs under an anti-Purge platform, saying that if elected she will outlaw the ceremony. You know, that ceremony that virtually every character we have ever met despises. The New Founding Fathers are terrified that she is going to be put into office, and so they institute a plan to kill her on Purge night. Hang on – these comically evil murderers get off on watching poor people be viciously slaughtered every year, but they’re just going to accept the results of an election? And the Purge has been happening for two decades without anyone proposing that maybe legalized murder is a bad idea?
DeMonaco’s social commentary does not work because he can’t seem to decide if he’s going for a realistic portrait of the future, or a satirical and purposely unrealistic scenario in the vein of A Modest Proposal that is meant to make a point more than it is to be believed.
Most of the time, he seems to be going for the former, with modern elections and debates coupled with dialogue that is meant to make us say, “Oh wow, our country really could come to this one day!” But all the characters and situations are so absurdly over the top, from the villains with swastika tattoos and “WHITE POWER” printed on their uniforms to the anti-Purge minority groups who decorate rooms with “STOP CLASS WARFARE” posters. On the one hand, we’re getting a purposely blunt thought experiment not intended to be taken seriously, but then we have an entire subplot about the senator needing to win Florida in order to be elected president. Those two do not mix. By the end, I began to question whether anything in these films is actually meant to be over the top at all; maybe DeMonaco just genuinely fucking sucks at writing dialogue and characters and we’ve been laughing at him not with him this whole time.
Speaking of which, virtually every character in the movie is awful. DeMonaco tries to establish a funny rapport between the leads, but there isn’t one joke that did not cause me physical pain. There’s one character who declares early on that he doesn’t care about anything but pussy and waffles. Haha, oh wow, what a guy! Later, they bring that back up, mentioning how their good ol’ pal just can’t stop talking about pussy and waffles all day. Gee golly, what fun these characters have!
Then there’s the character of Joe Dixon, who is the film equivalent of James DeMonaco letting us know that he has a lot of black friends. Everything the dude says is a cringeworthy racial joke, from the scene where he says that black people sure do love fried chicken to the moment when he warns someone not to sneak up on black people during the Purge. Boy howdy do those African-American folks get frightened a lot! We’re sure having a blast in this movie! Let’s not also forget such great protagonists as the teenage girls who get busted stealing one single candy bar from a deli, and so they return during The Purge to murder the owner. Then there’s Marcos; we are meant to be impressed with his political savvy when he tells a United States senator that in order to win the presidential election she needs to secure over 270 electoral votes. I think there’s a realistic possibility DeMonaco just learned about elections work for the first time while writing this movie.
A few moments in The Purge: Election Year do work in spite of DeMonaco’s best efforts to screw them up. There’s some interesting world building on display again, as with the new element of foreigners coming to the United States as tourists to participate in the Purge and attacking Americans in founding fathers costumes. Now that is a cool idea that could have easily been the focus of the entire film. And when the movie actually shuts the fuck up with the jokes and the social commentary in the final half-hour, it manages to craft a somewhat eerie and thrilling cult-like sequence taking place inside a church. Just imagine what could have been if DeMonaco had written more scenes like these and less jokes about pussy and fried chicken.
All in all, though, DeMonaco really just hammers in everything that did not work about the previous Purge while reducing all the good of it to a minimum. If it was necessary to explore the political system of the Purge universe – and I’m not sure it was – DeMonaco should have focused on making an absurd, satirical view of future America, one where society is totally different from our own but while reflecting anxiety over where we’re going as a nation (i.e. Idiocracy). After all, what is the idea of The Purge if not a ridiculous parody of class warfare, taking the abstract concept of rich people thriving on the suffering of the poor and making it literal?
Instead we have a movie where that insane concept is squeezed into our real world with virtually no changes. It’s not just an issue of realism; there’s not a whole lot of tension or a sense that the characters are being screwed by those at the top because apparently all they have to do is peacefully elect a person to change the law and that’s it. We are also meant to accept that The Purge is the subject of a fierce political debate in America, yet we never meet a single pro-Purge person who is not basically a racist Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. And by the way, it’s later established that the heroic anti-Purge forces are Democrats and the evil racist murderers are Republicans. Might as well just throw the last remaining bit of subtly right out the window.
So what the fuck is the point of this film then? It doesn’t work as a parallel to our real world because nothing makes sense even within the logic of the previous films. It also doesn’t work as a satire because it doesn’t go far enough in distinguishing itself from reality. All the characters also suck, the dialogue is unbelievably bad, and even if we can accept all that and just want some satisfying gore, there are barely any interesting deaths or action setpieces.
Election Year made me nostalgic for the original Purge, and I genuinely had no idea that was possible. It is a complete failure from start to finish.