Film review: The Purge: Election Year - It's the thinking person's slasher film
This cheerful dystopian shocker is a witty and timely political satire, says Paul Whitington
If Donald J Trump's surreal presidential run has had one positive side-effect, it's the orgy of soul-searching it's inspired about what it means to be American. The country's insistence on the right to bear arms in the face of almost monthly mass shooting incidents is hard for outsiders to get their heads around, and there's no doubting which side of that debate Mr Trump is on. At several points during his campaign he even seems to have encouraged violence among his supporters, and his presidency, if it ever transpires, promises to be a spectacularly divisive one.
The fears and nightmares of a troubled nation have wormed their way into The Purge: Election Year, an odd and interesting film that's part dystopian satire, part shameless slasher movie. It's set in the not too distant future, and is the third in a series of uneven but surprisingly brainy horror movies that explore America's strange and ongoing addiction to violence while simultaneously exulting in it.
It's mid-21st Century America, and a radical political group called the New Founding Fathers has reduced crime rates to an all-time low, thanks in the main to a novel new initiative called the Purge. Every year, on the evening of March 21, all laws are suspended to allow the country's citizens to vent their rage in an orgy of assault and murder that will go totally unpunished.
This state-sponsored turkey shoot supposedly acts as a kind of social safety valve, and once you don't go out to play with anything larger than a machine gun, you're in the clear.
Naturally, not everyone is a fan of this annual cull of the weak and impoverished, and a charismatic senator called Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) has emerged to challenge the all-white and distinctly fascist Founding Fathers in a forthcoming election. That's just weeks away, and meanwhile the Purge is about to take place, the perfect cover for an assassination that will remove Ms Roan permanently from the equation.
While she hunkers down for the night in her supposedly impregnable home, a gang of white supremacists hired by the Founding Fathers has bribed one of her security staff into letting them in. Carnage ensues, and Charlie escapes into the nihilistic madness of the Purge with only her chief security agent Leo (Frank Grillo) to protect her.
Leo appeared in the second Purge film, and is pretty handy with a knife, but with a virtual army on their trail, he soon needs assistance. It comes from a burly grocery store owner (Mykelti Williamson) who believes Charlie can make a difference and wants her to survive the night and get elected, and also from a violent underground movement led by Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge). And so a battle for the soul of America is played out in the blood-soaked streets of the nation's capital.
The symbolism of all this is obvious, even heavy-handed, but at least The Purge: Election Year has something halfway interesting to say for itself. And while James DeMonaco's film is not without its inherent hypocrisies - preaching peace while the body count giddily rises - it has a keen sense of humour and a certain gory panache. The roving killers wear Halloween masks and dance about in party costumes like extras in a music video: they seem to be happy in their work, and even consider it their patriotic duty.
When, on the eve of the Purge, the grocery store man confronts two pouting schoolgirls who are shoplifting, they return after dark dressed like hookers and carrying a glittering assortment of guns and knives, their cars festooned with rows of Christmas tree lights that make them look like advancing ships of death. The New Founding Fathers are constantly referred to using initials that inevitably remind one of the NRA (National Rifle Association), and the fact that the Purge is described as a way of culling poor people the state would otherwise have to care for raises some uncomfortable parallels.
But this film's politics are never terribly strident: more than anything it's a slasher film, and an impressively violent one at that.
The Purge: Election Year
Films coming soon
Café Society (Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart); A Date for Mad Mary (Seana Kerslake, Charleigh Bailey, Tara Lee); Things to Come (Isabelle Huppert); Equity (James Purefoy, Anna Gunn); Morgan (Kate Mara, Toby Jones).