The Purge franchise, now on its third iteration, takes a simple, silly premise – that for one night every year all crime is legal – and holds onto it like a rottweiler on a toddler’s arm. The first instalment, starring Ethan Hawke, was a straight-forward home invasion thriller, Panic Room by way of The Strangers, in which a middle-class family is targeted by “purgers” after their son takes in a wounded black man.
The Purge: Anarchy took the premise to the streets, building upon the political and racial undertones of the first film, spelling out that Purge Night is a way of culling poor people and cutting welfare spending, with wealthy (white) Americans encouraged to “unleash the beast” as part of their civic duty. Anarchy also injected a heavy dose of Mad Max into the franchise’s DNA, with its groups of heavily made-up bikers and general dystopian revelry.
Election Year runs face-first into the logical conclusions suggested by the first two outings, this time concerning itself with the ideological battle by young senator Charlie Roan to end this grizzly “Halloween for adults”. We meet her in the first reel, tied up alongside her family as a masked man forces her mother to choose which of her children gets to remain in one piece (while T Rex thunders from his “purge playlist”).
Fast-forward 18 years and Roan is a major political player, on the brink of an unlikely victory against the fascist New Founding Fathers party. The government reacts by getting its purge on, sparking a city-wide manhunt for Roan that sees her team up with a group of working-class folk defending their deli against marauding youths with diamante assault rifles.
Election Year’s message isn’t subtle: violence begets violence, fascism is bad, the NRA are probably assholes. Having said that, for a film with a pacifist message, it doesn’t half revel in gore and bloodshed, with heads rolling in slow-motion from makeshift guillotines, bodies aflame in the streets and crowds pumped full of bullets.
The critique of self-serving political elites – especially those of the Donald Trump ilk – is as blunt as a spoon, but it’s timely and effective. Every topic du jour is mined for inspiration – race relations, the power of the church, the failing healthcare system – resulting in a satirical juggernaut that’s equal parts thrilling and daft.
The Purge series could have been forgettable B-movie fodder, but consistently good writing and a joyous embrace of the ridiculous has made it a memorable political horror story, and Election Year is the best of the three.
First published in City A.M.