Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Purge: Election Year (2016) (Review)


The Purge series has always worked better in concept than in execution; by far, its my favourite horror franchise at the moment but it has failed to reach the peak potential its intriguing premise offers. Now in its third instalment, following the original in 2013 and the follow-up, Anarchy in 2014 (which was a significant improvement over the predecessor) one still awaits a film that can explore the 'twelve hours a year all crime is legalised' with the depth it deserves. Can The Purge: Election Year live up to that promise?

With the 2040 election race heating up, two very different opponents battle for success; the New Founding Fathers of America frontrunner Minister Edwidge Owens is the early favourite although anti-Purge Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is quickly catching up. Wanting the 'American tradition' to end after her family were killed eighteen years previously, her opposing ideology has attracted unwanted attention from the NFFA who want to eliminate the competition; using the Purge night to target her and bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), they are forced to go on to the streets and survive the twelve hours, despite danger at every turn from a host of different purgers.

Election Year's biggest success is its continued topicality and political subtext, and whilst subtlety never enters filmmaker James DeMonaco's vocabulary, one cannot help but admire the brazen way it approaches the multitude of timely themes, including immigration, racial supremacy, evangelicalism and entitled classism. Fuelled by this political subtext, Election Year builds and succeeds by its real-life parallels, and whilst a real-life Purge will hopefully never come into fruition, the two opponents are painted with similar strokes to those of the American frontrunners - with the Trump-like figure demanding the continued butchery that eliminates the undesired (anybody not old, white and rich), Clinton can be recognised in Roan's idealist. Whilst these parallels are a little less forced and obvious than the thematic content, it enhances the experience by encouraging the discomfort that makes the dystopia portrayed a little too close to home.

Aside from the intriguing set-up, we have some genuinely interesting characters included in the mix, who feel a little more fleshed out than in most of the genre's offerings. Grillo's Leo Barnes returns again as a man who wants the annual tradition wiped out, siding with Mitchell's Senator Charlie Roan, who both give solid performances as individual's simply trying to survive the night and complete their jobs. In terms of new characters, it truly is refreshing to see a genuine mix in the cast in terms of diversity, even if some of the acting of the minor characters has a lot to be desired. Going hand-in-hand with the thematic musing on racism, the supporting cast is padded out with a number of ethnic minorities of each gender, with a renewed focus on youth entitlement (including one of the most abhorrent girls you will ever see) and 'murder tourists', which is a fascinating angle the film fails to explore to the highest degree. Apart from the disconcerting scene featuring these tourists, who are visiting America simply to purge and clad in American-theme iconography to commit their crimes in one of the franchise's most striking moments that muses on what the Purge has come to represent America as, it leads us down a road that instead trails off and abandons us. Again, another wasted opportunity.

Stuffed with visual irony that manages to strike the right chord of discomfort - including surgical instruments cleansed in a church with holy water before purging innocent victims and a young bride dancing around in a blood stained dress with a baseball bat in hand - as with previous instalments, Election Year works well effectively by pushing the visual shocks. Seeing gunfire in a church and a killer priest is another of the franchises critiques on figures of power and opulence and works exceedingly well with this outrageous commentary that pushes barriers on more than a few occasions. As well as visually, the soundtrack perfectly underpins the film and creates an uneasy atmosphere throughout, with tension continually building because of Nathan Whitehead's killer motion picture soundtrack that does actually what it needs to do when it needs to do it, capturing all the emotions and pushing them even further than the visuals allow.

Despite the endless opportunities that the series could explore and push, Election Year decides to slip back into the narrative formula that worked so well for Anarchy, which more often than it should retreads old ground. In essence, it is the same film with different characters, and even those (minor) characters are painted with similar paintbrushes and recognisable stereotypes. It attempts to expand the 'mythology' of the series but does not fully realise the potential it has and makes narrative beats that are too strikingly similar to prior instalments. It also suffers from an awkward first ten minutes that tries to set up too much, rather than having it occur naturally, but gets right back on track when the Purge begins. Despite the occasional predictability of the film, the twists and turns are pulled off with palpable, nervy tension and bravery, meaning that Election Year can be forgiven for sticking with what it knows works well - it will have to be careful moving forward with the franchise however, and will really need to reinvigorate its structure to remain as fresh and exciting as the two sequels have been and the premise promises.

Election Year takes a lot of glee in exploring the twisted nature of the annual tradition, often fetishising the brutality but never using it overtly - yes, there is a lot of blood but never uses it too graphic or dwelled up, avoiding the gratification most horrors employ. Instead, it takes aspects of both the horror and thriller genre to satisfyingly jolt audience between the two, crafting another potently satirical cultural critique, mixed in with the mindless mayhem that ensures it moves at a thrilling pace (when it gets going, that is). It still is frustrating to see a franchise squander so much potential on another 'good but not incredible' film, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that this is still one of the strongest genre entries from the past few years, and a franchise that continues to find things to say, even if it doesn't go about saying them in the most effective way. While Election Year closes on a somewhat conclusive note, the possibilities for further instalments are endless, and with renewed inspiration and dedication, could continue the upward traction The Purge series has experienced over the course of their neat and chilling trilogy.

(8/10)

Summary: Election Year, rather unsubtly, captures a timely zeitgeist, and while the franchise continues to work better in concept than in execution, it still manages to offer another thought-provoking and exciting instalment in this unashamedly exploitative and savage franchise.

Highlight: When the two girls got mowed down. I think I heard a collective cheer.

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