‘The Purge: Election Year’ and Its Institutional Monsters

This film doesn't work too hard at making a wholly moral result inevitable, for it must deliver nasty death scenes, sacrifices and scares.

“It’s a fine line when you’re trying to make a statement about violence while you’re also depicting violence.”

James DeMonaco

“This is my share of the pie,” says Joe (Mykelti Williamson). He means his Washington DC convenience store, and he’s just gotten off the phone with his insurance company, who’s raised his rates beyond his ability to pay. This being the day before Purge, Joe’s in trouble. “If I have no insurance, I’m screwed,” he says. He can’t even imagine how screwed.

But you can. That’s because you’ve seen versions of Joe’s story before. His is one of several that intersect in The Purge: Election Year, the third film in James DeMonaco’s ongoing mediation on violence in America. Joe’s focus on his store might seem to set his story in some opposition to others more overtly invested in surviving the annual 12 hours during which anyone can commit any crime penalty-free. As the films have it, the ritual tends to focus on murder, rather than looting and other material-focused mayhem. For Joe, however, the store is life, a sign of his labor and achievement, which is to say, his moral code.

Inevitably, that code has contexts, including gender, race, and class. So, while Joe is insisting that he’ll defend his place, against the advice of his immigrant employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and Laney (Betty Gabriel), the local celebrity vigilante who sees him as a dad, in another part of town, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) makes her own ill-advised decision, to stay at home on Purge night rather than sheltering in a fortified safe house with her colleagues. She claims this is a matter of principal, as she’s running for president with a pledge to end the Purge, she’s run afoul of the New Founding Fathers of America, who deem the Purge religious (“Purge and purify!”), running as their candidate a minister named Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), at once preposterous and intimidating, Puritanical and bloodlusty.

Charlie’s decision to stay home, with her security detail headed by the last film’s survivor Leo (Frank Grillo), underlines her difference from Joe and his neighbors. She’s got choices they can’t even imagine, involving high tech surveillance gear and weaponry. While Leo and his men keep in touch by Secret Service earpieces and monitors, Joe and Marco stake out a position on the store’s rooftop, with a couple of rifles, lawn-chairs, and a cooler full of beers.

As the night’s violence brings anxiety, injury, and all kinds of regret, Charlie makes repeated speeches, to Leo and anyone else who might listen, about her principles and her determination to win the election fairly. Her opponents, who call her the c-word three or four times in the film’s first few minutes, have no such compunctions. They mean to kill her.

To that end, the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) sends a team of mercenaries headed by a Vic Mackey-looking guy named Earl (Terry Serpico). So that you’re sure of just how bad he is, Earl sports tattoos all over his bald head and neck, not to mention confederate flag decals on his uniform. While you know from the franchise formula that all stories will converge, Earl makes explicit The Purge: Election Year‘s interest in race, specifically, the raced identities of who’s fighting whom and who’s preserving what.

While the film briefly takes up another identities war, with a television spot on the invasion of heavily accented “Purge tourists” coming to DC to indulge in American atrocities, its story architecture focuses closely on the monstrous white privilege of the members of Owens’ church and the courageous people of color who maintain an underground triage center and militia. True, a brief story detour shows a pack of indolent teens as the fulcrum of DC’s roaming bands of killers, and they’re blacker and browner (and more female) than the suburban kids in the first Purge. But the undeniable street heroes, including some Crips gang members who respect Joe’s OG status, are decidedly not white.

This doesn’t mean that Charlie and Leo can’t also be heroic. It does mean, however, that they have to make concessions and compromises en route to joining forces. It’s hardly a seamless process, and it’s frequently clumsy, but it’s of a piece with the trajectory initiated by the Purge series’ first film, when an unnamed black man, the “Bloody Stranger” (Edwin Hodge) is allowed into Sandin’s (Ethan Hawke) super-secure suburban home, and then pursued when he’s transformed into the street-savvy “Dwayne, the Stranger” by The Purge: Anarchy. Now, in the third film, he has an aptly allegorical name, Dante. A moral guide and an underground champion, he’s reintroduced here as a renowned and admired figure, outside the political mainstream, organizing the oppressed and resisting the NFFA’s ordained fate for poor, black and brown people.

It’s not an easy move, getting Charlie and Leo’s plotline integrated with Dante’s, but Joe and Laney provide the framework. Though they’re not immediately inclined to save the white lady senator (Joe is preoccupied with defending his store), once they take up the mission, they’re as committed to one another as to that cause (which appears to be, getting her elected so the Purge will be outlawed). It helps her to see what’s happening because she has her own family history with the Purge, but Charlie needs a “new” coalition, as it were, to survive the night, following her not-so-great decision to stay home in her relatively unprotected home.

On meeting Dante, the white lady senator does her best to make her principled case, and he does his best to listen to her and also to educate her, as their divergent senses of purpose remain at odds. The Purge Election Year, being part of a horror movie franchise, doesn’t work too hard at making a wholly moral result inevitable, for it must deliver nasty death scenes, bloody penetrations, and fearsome monsters, sacrifices and scares. Still, it allows that if elections might not get everything right, underground communities continue to resist.

RATING 6 / 10