Eighteen years after seeing her entire family murdered in front of her, US Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for President with an openly avowed intent to end the annual ‘Purge’: one night of each year in which all crimes become legal, and America’s rich and powerful descend upon the streets to torture and murder the poor. With the country’s so-called New Founding Fathers considering Roan a clear and present danger to their control, they target her for elimination during the next annual Purge. Betrayed from within and on the run, Roan’s best hope is her loyal chief of security Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) – a man with his own haunted past during the Purge.
Election Year is the third film in writer/director James DeMonaco’s bleak and satirical thriller series The Purge. It is a franchise that has expanded with each instalment: the first a home invasion thriller, the second an extended street chase, and this third effort a much more direct and political thriller. DeMonaco has been carefully upping the satirical content with each film. The Purge is, ultimately, an extension of contemporary America: the rich exploit the poor, which in effect means white people exploiting people of colour, and government policy designed to week out the lower classes get cynically disguised as a social effort to make America’s streets safe. By this third film the political elements are brought so hard to the forefront that it is literally about a politician in danger. DeMonaco seems to improve with each film as well. Election Year is, for me at least, his very best.
There is a surprising level of restraint in how DeMonaco presents the Purge. If you think about it, an environment where any crime is temporarily legal could easily tempt a filmmaker to showcase all kinds of depravity. DeMonaco shows just enough for us to be horrified, but then leaves us imagine the worse things for ourselves. The film is predominantly not about the violence, but the conversations that the violence provokes.
The film is well shot and styled, with hand-held photography giving it a much-needed sense of immediacy and tension. Its partial ensemble cast works excellently as well. The focus is ultimately on Roan and Barnes, but it still finds room for a host of supporting character with their own distinct personalities and backstories. Elizabeth Mitchell is a strong and appealing lead as Roan; she never feels weak and never absurdly idealistic. As Barnes, Frank Grillo is an immediate and natural action hero. His abilities never seem exaggerated – save perhaps for an oddly ineffectual gunshot wound – and he delivers his performance with a well-pitched level of intensity and grit. It has always been a slight mystery as to why Grillo has not been a more popular actor. He certainly has the talent and the screen presence, and it feels slightly perverse that his most successful role to date has been as the villain in a Chinese action movie (2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, the ninth-highest grossing film of its year worldwide).
Election Year is a great thriller with some real socio-political meat on its bones. It also brings The Purge franchise to a natural end point, although – Hollywood being what it is – a prequel is in post-production as I write. I’m just guessing that the series doesn’t need it.