Once upon a time — three years ago, to be exact — The Purge was merely a derivative home invasion thriller with the skein of political relevance, using a dumb hook about a night of national catharsis to basically remake The Strangers. Two quick sequels later, the franchise has opened up into what Wikipedia dubs “social science-fiction action horror,” which adequately describes the chunky genre stew that writer-director James DeMonaco has whipped up for mass consumption. The sequels have both been better than the original, if only because the free-for-all street melees are a truer picture of Purge night than Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey fending off a few creepy Ivy League types in Halloween masks. It may still be an incoherent vision of near-future America, but at least it’s a vision.
Here’s what we’ve known about The Purge from the beginning: A governing body called New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) have lowered the crime rate substantially by allotting 12 hours a year for citizens to commit crimes without any legal repercussions. Through one cleansing night of violence, they can “purge” their aggressions and behave themselves the rest of the year, as if human beings were whistling teakettles in need of a pour. (DeMonaco has yet to imagine any other crime that might be committed in that time, but surely Danny Ocean or Gordon Gekko would have some ideas.) With The Purge: Anarchy, the series floated the larger conspiracy that the NFFA was using Purge night to oppress the lower class, which has no defense against the roving bands of purgers (and government agents) mowing them down.
With the timeliness baked into the title, The Purge: Election Year completes the franchise’s evolution into a hard-R Hunger Games, adding still more political intrigue that confuses as much as it enlightens. The NFFA is revealed to be both a fascist, white supremacist cult with allegiances to the Nazis and the Confederacy and a democratically elected party that apparently wins year after year after year. Except this year, 2025, they have a challenger: Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a Presidential candidate who lost her entire family in a Purge and vows to eliminate it if elected. Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), the gruff hero of Anarchy, returns as her head of security, who’s justly concerned that the government and its supporters want to have her assassinated before Election Day.