Purge: Election Year, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Purge: Election Year,” written and directed by James DeMonaco, has the potential to become a thoughtful horror-thriller, given our current political and societal climate, but instead it relies on the same old tricks, within the genre and its predecessors, to generate superficial suspense and thrills. As a result, the picture, for the most part, suffers from the law of diminishing returns: its bite is less potent, its attempts to shock more predictable in terms of execution and final result. It is clearly an inferior installment.
The plot revolves around a returning character, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), now a bodyguard for Senator Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a politician determined to end the annual Purge once and for all because she believes the event is merely a ploy for the rich to control the population of the poor, especially poor minorities. Since they have less means to protect themselves, they are killed at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. She has used this platform to propel herself to become the next president of the United States. Her rivals then aim to use the Purge to eliminate the competition.
Out of the gates already showing off great level of energy, it is a great frustration that much of it is depleted less than halfway through. It can be argued that standout scenes take place in a deli where owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends (Betty Gabriel, Joseph Julian Soria) trade humorous banters and comment on the politics shown on television. Although they are all on the same side, they actually sit on different points of the political spectrum. If the writer-director had chosen to strive a little higher or dig a little deeper, their differences ought to have been more amplified. It certainly would have made Joe, Marcos, and Laney more interesting; we would have cared about them more.
Shootouts from afar receive more time to unfold than violence that feels personal. Such is a misstep that takes away the effectiveness of the premise. While necessary because the plot involves multiple attempts of political assassinations, thrills should not rely mostly on these impersonal long distance kills. What makes the original film so haunting is that by the end we discover that even one’s neighbors wish to hurt, maim, or kill another because of their jealousy, envy, or belief that one doesn’t deserve one’s successes and accomplishments.
Here, although there are politics that relate to real-life issues such as the 1% working the system or finding loopholes in order to take advantage of the 99% and a politician’s popularity being rooted in hatred of the Other, the script fails to put the outrage into meaningful, shaded context that it inevitably rattles us but makes us think at the same time. Instead, it chooses to focus on people shooting at each other as if it were a generic action flick.
The closest it gets to the sheer insanity of the previous films involves schoolgirls (Brittany Mirabile—whom I would love to see more in other projects—and Juani Feliz) wishing to kill Joe and destroy his deli during Purge Night simply because they were caught shoplifting the day before. This dragged out conflict stems out of stealing candy but not being allowed to get away with it. (Even though the owner chose that the cops did not get involved.) What makes it a solid subplot in this particular horror-thriller is because it is able to match the madness and energy of the premise. If only the rest were written as thoughtfully and creatively.