FILM REVIEW – THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR. With Elizabeth Mitchell, Frank Grillo, Mykelti Williamson, J.J. Soria, Liza Colon-Zayas. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Rated R for disturbing bloody violence and strong language . 105 minutes.
James DeMonaco’s series of “Purge” films–THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR being the third, following “The Purge” (2013) and “The Purge: Anarchy” (2014)–gets more interesting with each entry. As we debate violence in our society and the manipulative relationship between politicians and the public, the timing coudn’t be more appropriate.
We’re back in a near-future America where the ruling class, calling themselves “The New Founding Fathers,” has instituted an annual ritual called “The Purge.” For twelve hours, all laws are suspended and all official emergency services are shut down. We’re told this venting of murderous violence and destruction has made America more peaceful and prosperous. But in the second film, it became clear that for the elite, it was a way to get rid of undesirables while distracting people from their real problems.
Which brings us to the latest film, set two years after the events of “The Purge: Anarchy.” Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) is now running security for Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a Presidential candidate who has vowed to end The Purge if elected. The powers that be plan to use this year’s edition to get rid of her.
Beyond shocking us with scenes of grotesque violence as people’s worst instincts are allowed to run free, DeMonaco wants us to seriously consider the ramifications of his creation. We see foreign tourists flocking to America for the opportunity to kill and torture without penalty. We also get a sense of just how much class warfare is part of this when Joe (Mykelti Williamson), a deli shop owner is told of huge increases in the cost for his “Purge insurance,” effectively leaving him defenseless hours before it begins.
Although the story is set in Washington, D.C., it was actually shot in Rhode Island. So older viewers who think that the newscaster at the beginning of the film looks a lot like Boston TV legend Barry Nolan are not mistaken. It actually is Boston TV legend Barry Nolan.
While providing surreal action and food for thought, one other point needs to be made, and that is–in contrast to “The Legend of Tarzan” which is also opening today–this is a movie in which black and white characters are part of an ensemble. In spite of the white senator who needs to be protected so she can win the election and end The Purge the movie is not about dynamic white characters saving the day for anonymous blacks. Nor are the minority characters mere “sidekicks.” In addition to Williamson, Liza Colon-Zayas plays Dawn, someone risking her life to rescue some of the victims, while J.J. Soria gets to put an interesting spin on the immigration debate as a new U.S. citizen from Mexico who works in the deli shop. Each of them is a three-dimensional character who earns our sympathy and support.
One shouldn’t expect grand allegory from what is essentially a low-budget horror film, yet it’s not without precedent (see, for example, “Night of the Living Dead,”) and DeMonaco deserves credit for wanting his movies to be about more than just the blood and gore. “The Purge: Election Year” does hint at a sequel, and given what’s going on in the real world, sadly, there should be plenty of inspiration for it.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.