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The Purge: Election Year

July 1, 2016
The Purge: Election Year

The Purge came in 2013 as a home-invasion movie with a bludgeon of a premise, and yet somehow managed to be a bit too subtle with the details of its metaphor. It’s a mistake writer/director James DeMonaco seems to have vowed never to make again, and The Purge: Election Year sprays its symbolism around like its characters spray automatic weapons fire.

The Election Year showdown is between the candidate for the pro-Purge “New Founding Fathers of America” candidate, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), and the anti-Purge Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell). But really the election is just a focal point for two visions of America. One side is a loose coalition of religious zealots, the wealthy, and white power gun nuts that espouses a regressive, violent individualism as a means to maintain their domination and control of the system. The other is made up of the black, brown, and working-class white folks who find the deck stacked against them, unable to raise themselves above the mistakes of their past within a system designed to knock them back to zero every year.

Obviously, the Powers that Be aren’t about to let Charlie unravel all the work they’ve done to feather their nests. When Purge Night comes around they lift the usual exception protecting high-level government officials, making her a valid target, and send in a skinhead militia (led by Terry Serpico) to take her out. Luckily, Charlie’s head of security is Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who we met in the last installment. He manages to get her out of her house, and hopes to get her out of the city to ride out the night.

That’s going to take the help of Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria), who are out defending their store against Purgers because they can’t afford a last-minute rate hike for Purge insurance. They’ll also get support from Laney (Betty Gabriel), a former gang member who now drives a black-crossed ambulance around the streets of D.C., trying to administer what emergency medical care she can.

And they’ll make uneasy alliance with Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge), who started as the homeless stranger seeking shelter in the first movie, and now leads an organized, armed resistance movement. They’re planning to take advantage of the extra freedoms of this night’s Purge to take out the NFFA at their annual Purge Mass. Charlie, on the other hand, worries that her opponent’s assassination would make him a martyr, and all her hard-won gains would wash out in the backlash.

That’s the really interesting tension, here. It’s not between whether or not the Purge is a good thing; the allegory is far too blunt to speak to the people it analogizes to pro-Purgers. It’s between those who think the system can be improved, and those inclined to burn it to the ground and replace it. Yes, sometimes giving the bastards a bit of their own is the best way to break an intractable situation, but those who let the implausible perfect be the enemy of the attainable good risk being just as bad as those who want to keep things the way they are, if not move them backwards to some imagined former greatness.

Could all this be achieved without the horror-show trappings? sure. There’s surely a talky, one-room ciné-a-clef to be made that hashes all this out more thoughtfully and soberly than this one does. But the people inclined to watch that movie are also already inclined to get it, and to vote accordingly. The audience for The Purge: Election Year isn’t, and by addressing them in their own language, DeMonaco is at least trying to move the needle in a way that more genteel directors and critics never will.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail an example was pointed out to me that feels like kind of an edge case, but fair enough that I’m going to change my mind and give it a pass.

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