Silver Screen: The Purge: Election Year ***
The Purge might not be—okay, it’s definitely not— the greatest film series of the decade, but it may be the most pertinent.
The premise is hyperbole doused in popcorn butter: In the near future, balance to the American economy is restored by the institution of the Purge, an annual night when all crime is declared legal. The official reasoning is that citizens who have an opportunity to vent their bloodlust will be more hospitable year-round. The grumbled theory in the liberal underground is that the Purge is an excuse to line the pockets of the insurance and home-security industries while helping to literally get rid of the lower-class citizens for whom the leaders would otherwise have to care.
Sounds absolutely batty, but it’s hard not to find some resonance between the image of a stranger calmly waiting at a bus station while a body smolders in flames next to them and the country’s increasingly impassive attitude toward mass shootings. The kind of fervent belly-level rage Donald Trump has stoked seems ominously poised to tip into atavistic neo-libertarianism.
It’s a shame The Purge movies aren’t a little bit better, since writer/director James DeMonaco is onto something. He reveals the zeitgeist’s shadow in the same way the Saw movies were a dark reflection of the Bush era. But while the Saw series seemed to refract the bloodthirsty sentiment inadvertently and without any real commentary, the Purge movies are self-aware. DeMonaco is in control of his message— just not necessarily dialogue, metaphor, or the late-1970s John Carpenter vibe he’s trying to channel.
The first Purge movie, which starred Ethan Hawke, mostly squandered its clever conceit as the background to a Straw Dogs-style home-invasion thriller. The sequel, bereft of big-name stars, managed to surprisingly usurp its predecessor by moving the action out into the streets to feel the larger civic impact of the Purge.
The sequel’s hero, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), returns in The Purge: Election Year. The government-trained avenging angel once planned to use the annual bloodletting to even the score for his son’s murder. Now he’s changed his affiliation to work as the head of security for Sen. Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a galvanizing candidate running for president on an anti-Purge platform. Her popularity threatens the pro-Purge party, the New Founding Fathers of America, who are propping up a popular religious leader (Kyle Secor) for president. What better time to get rid of their problem than the Purge?
A subplot involving a socially conscious convenience-store owner played by the excellent Mykelti Williamson (Bubba in Forrest Gump and mobster Ellstin Limehouse in Justified) protecting his property and the people of his community eventually dovetails with the broader story. It’s the formula of the second movie, magnified ever so slightly, but somewhat less satisfying.
Still, occasionally DeMonaco spins social anxieties into horror-movie gold. His bloody images of civic unrest aren’t a world away from the popular apocalyptic iconography, but they have a more singularly upsetting resonance. The sentiment here isn’t one of total negativity. DeMonaco isn’t suggesting— as, say, Saw or The Walking Dead do— that mankind’s default impulse is to barbarism. But he does worry that the barbaristic minority might be enough to overwhelm the good people we know, might even include some of those good people we thought we knew.
The Purge movies have come out successively every year since the release of the original. This speaks both to their popularity and their cheapness. But DeMonaco is able to conjure the spirit of John Carpenter now and then, turning his slender budgets into excuses for eerily vacant streets and gritty, claustrophobic settings.
He also does a hell of a casting job. Grillo’s performance in the second Purge was a definitive argument for the longtime background player’s elevation to the character-actor pantheon of Fred Ward, Clancy Brown, and David Carradine. He’s great here again alongside the subtly forceful, tremendously empathetic Elizabeth Mitchell along with Mykelti Williamson and a breakout performance from Betty Gabriel.
Alas, the usually reliable Kyle Secor is a soggy cliché of a bad guy, but then the Purge movies have always been bad at defining the villains beyond an impassive mass of well-dressed elderly white people calm in the face of extreme carnage. That’s the indelible image DeMonaco can’t quite translate into a single character, but then, maybe all the better to make his point.
Well, okay, it could be a bit better.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.