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.
One sign: The NFFA has decided to remove the exception for government officials “rank 10 or higher,” so no one is immune. Worried about the bad optics of bunkering down in a more secure location like a snooty elite — seriously, these movies are pretty stupid — Charlie instead stays at home, where jackbooted thugs arrive faster than a pizza delivery service. She and Leo eventually team up with a deli owner (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends, who are trying to protect their business from looters. As the night wears on, they encounter a larger resistance movement and face some tough moral questions about how best to upend the new world order.
The Purge: Election Year tries dropping up-to-the-minute truthbombs about race and violence in America, but DeMonaco’s ad hoc approach to political allegory consistently misses the target. The film works slightly better as a pastiche of genre favorites, like an urban Mad Max with elements of Escape from New York, The Gauntlet, and The Warriors tossed in for good measure. DeMonaco doesn’t have a Mel Gibson or a Kurt Russell or a Clint Eastwood to lead the charge — the glowering Grillo is a poor substitute — but Williamson’s salty old shopkeep breaks up the determined seriousness of the film with a little welcome comedy.
DeMonaco hovers around a provocative theme about white power in America and its near-literal worship of guns and violence, and the dolled-up anarchy suggests a cross between Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Devil’s Night in Detroit. But the follow-through on The Purge movies, now Election Year included, is never as clever or coherent as it needs to be to make any ideas stick, and DeMonaco’s direction carries the rudimentary slickness and shock effects of an average studio horror movie. Given the macabre grotesquerie of American politics and culture in our own election year, the time seems right for a great horror series to reflect it back at us. The Purge isn’t that series.