The third and final film in The Purge trilogy, Election Year makes a significant jump into the future, opening with a brief prologue set in 2022 – the backdrop to the first film – but then moving forward to 2040 and focusing, for the first time, on the couple of days leading up to the annual purge. By this point, enough time has passed for a whole infrastructure to have built up around the purge, and for the purge to have become a significant moment in the financial year, with insurance companies raising premiums on purge cover twelve hours before commencement and “murder” tourists coming from overseas (especially from Africa) to witness this most unusual of American holidays, now styled as “Halloween for adults.” More importantly, perhaps, enough time has now elapsed for genuine dissent to have emerged in response to the purge, such that the founding fathers are no longer merely using the purge as a pretext to cull the population, but to cull civil rights leaders and other opponents of the purge itself. Whereas the first film took a top-down approach and the second film took a bottom-up approach, Election Year is therefore focused on the political machinations and machinery of the purge, alternating between the founding fathers and all the bodies of resistance, most of whom are women, African-American and Hispanic, but all of whom are anxious to set themselves against the “old white haired George Washington wannabe mofos” that established the holiday in the first place.
Given that political groundswell, it feels inevitable when the founding fathers make a new amendment to the purge two days before commencement, announcing that class 10 political officials are no longer exempt from crime or murder. That means senators are no longer exempt, and forms part of a plan to legally assassinate the most vocal critic of the national holiday, Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), whose entire family were killed before her very eyes on purge night nearly two decades before, and who appears to be gaining popularity over the NFAA candidate, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor). With Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) from Anarchy as part of her security squad, Charlie needs to find a way to survive the night ahead, but also feels that it’s hypocritical to retreat into the ironclad strongholds reserved for the financially and politically elite if she is going to represent her constituency in any authentic way. As a result, she opts for a regular safehouse, and when the safehouse is hit by the NFAA, she teams up with Leo and makes for the streets outside, where they join forces with a diverse cross-section of Washington, D.C. residents anxious to survive the bloodshed.
To some extent, that recapitulates the trajectory of Anarchy. However, both the purgers and the opponents to the purge are quite different this time around, giving Election Night a unique tone and flavour of its own. Nearly twenty years later, there is a much more macabre, carnivalesque spirit to the purge, with voluntary purgers (as opposed to government contractors) whittled down to cult fringes and freaks, the minority of people whose appetite for blood hasn’t been satiated by two decades of purging. At the same time, we’re also witnessing a new generation of purgers, young people who don’t recall a time before the purge and so have accepted it, or even relish it, as a fact of their world. In the first films, the purgers often bore an eerie resemblance to the clown sightings that proliferated across the United States in 2016, and Election Night builds upon that to reiterate the purge as a viral phenomenon, a way of gaining social media cache. As a result, the younger the purgers are, the more it feels as if they’re trying to be the freakiest, fringiest purgers on display, in order to get “captured” on social media and thereby become a trendsetter for years to come. In fact, many of the purgers now seem to consciously perform “acts” that feel drawn from contemporary viral media – the Harlem Shake, DC fandom, vlogging – performing for the omniscient surveillance cameras – drone purging is now a thing – that are so critical to the smooth operation of the holiday as a whole.
For that reason, it’s hard not to feel that there’s some satire of millennial entitlement and nihilism going on, with the younger purgers exhibiting a rage for gratification whatever the consequences – and even in the face of certain death – that is quite distinct from the mannered Ivy League ceremonies of the first film. Indeed, the most brutal and merciless purgers are a group of teenage girls who return to a convenience store owned by Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), to seek revenge for being caught out for stealing a candy bar during the countdown to commencement. Proclaiming to each other that “This is what the purge is all about – me getting mine, you getting yours, and nobody stopping anybody,” this gang of teenagers is one of the scariest outfits in the entire franchise, even as their fusion of banal petulance and ultra-violence gives Election Year a crazy, operatic quality that’s quite different from the rest of the trilogy as well. At times, it could almost be a musical, so heightened are the purge scenes, if only because the purgers themselves seem to be trying to anticipate and accommodate every kind of musical accompaniment that could be grafted onto their actions when they finally go viral, curating a kind of pre-emptive soundtrack that’s far more advanced and meticulous than the rudimentary “purge playlist” that we see during the 2022 prologue.
If the purgers are different, however, then so are the survivors, since we’re no longer traversing a chaotic metropolis still in the first throes of purge shock but an entire economy that has emerged around the holiday and which includes subsidiary industries like victim disposal and removal along with privatised white supremacist squads that outsource the government’s dirty work. Within that environment, purgers have also become more ingenious as well – drones are a whole new ingredient – removing any fantasy of finding a real or enduring refuge from the purge and instead necessitating the creation of an alternative, oppositional economy, a whole underground railroad that helps vulnerable people move from safe house to safe house on purge night. Replete with a series of triage vehicles and concealed makeshift hospitals that also function as points of mobilisation and resistance, this purge counterculture wonderfully brings the film’s punky B-movie credentials to their artistic conclusion, to the point where the whole conflict almost feels like a battle between restless teenagers and oppressive adults, those who live (or try to live) by night and those who dominate by day. The main purge triage, in particular, gives the film a wonderful B-horror vibe as it cruises the streets like some giant insect, past atrocity after atrocity, picking up people needing help (or people who aren’t already beyond help).
In that sense, it often feels as if Election Night oscillates between two different types of youth – millennial youth who embrace the purge and pre-millennial (or post-millennial) youth who see it as part of the adult world that is oppressing and holding them down. Interestingly, the vigilant poses and postures of classical action cinema are framed as part of that adult heritage, so thoroughly have they been integrated into the purge itself, which is nothing if not an endorsement for citizens to take all their action fantasies to their logical conclusion. As a result, Election Night seems to call for a distinct end for action nostalgia, if only because the purge itself is action nostalgia, placing the main triage operatives in an odd position in which they are operating outside the law but not quite vigilantes in the traditional sense either, treading an uneasy and uncertain line that has evolved into an “unwritten purge rule to leave the triages alone.” Trying to adopt a response to the purge that is worthy of an action film while rejecting the assumptions of action cinema that enabled the purge in the first place, these operatives – who are pointedly Hispanic, African-American and female – are the most interesting characters in the film, and a powerful counterpoint to the Senator’s efforts to combat the purge through traditional electoral and democratic means.
That ambivalence around decisive or vigilant action means that Election Year doesn’t accelerate in its third act in quite the same way as Anarchy, briefly ebbing into the first heavy-handed moralising of the series only to regain its momentum in an incredible final sequence and tableaux that questions the very moral framework within which the purge and franchise can be judged and discussed. Towards the end of the second act, Charlie uncovers a plan to assassinate the founding fathers during the annual purge mass – held at a church built by George Washington – and sets herself against it, claiming the assassination will only turn her prospective election opponent into a political martyr. Things take a different turn when she is herself abducted and brought before the mass as a sacrificial victim, but even after being rescued and confronted with her abductor, she still decides that revenge doesn’t make sense on purge night, not for any high-handed or moralistic reasons this time around, but because she has realised that revenge is so irremediably implicated in the logic of the purge that refusing to purge is in fact the most radical gesture of all. Faced with her overwhelming desire to kill the Minister, and the Minister’s own pleas that she vindicate the purge by vindicating herself at his expense, she decides to break the cycle of the purge with an act of self-abnegation that removes any real catharsis from the final act of the film, but in such a way as to make you realise how much the experience of catharsis has itself been co-opted and commodified by the purge as a whole.
Divested of that final moment of release – as if the cathartic experience of escaping the purge has already been contained by the purge – the franchise seems to fuse the purge with the political system promoting it at the very moment at which it purports to detach and dissociate them. Far from feeling as if the United States has escaped the purge, the franchise ends with the sense that whatever it represented about late capitalism has simply been subsumed back into the system, leading me to wonder whether the best follow-up to the trilogy might be a television series dealing with the country’s efforts to grapple with the first couple of purge-free years. Appropriately, then, the final act concludes with the most vivid depictions of the institution of the purge yet, in a series of luridly provocative tableaux that draw out the barbarity of late capitalism with a relish that is perhaps only possible in a B-movie. As the Senator is taken before the purge mass as a sacrificial victim, the evangelical overtones of the holiday come to the fore for the first time in the series, as her prospective death is integrated into the first and final depiction of the purge as a religious rite and ritual cleansing. So vivid and horrific is that mise-en-scene that any subsequent effort to cleanse the nation feels implicated in it, as the pastor condenses and intensifies all the right-wing action poses that have been adopted by the purgers over the course of the action into a series of tableaux vivants.
Personally, I can’t recall having seen a more unremitting vision of the American church as an agent of violence in recent cinema and, for a moment there, with the Senator about to be sacrificed in front of the congregation, it almost feels like a glimpse of what Hillary had to go through from the right-wing media and GOP to even have a shot of winning the election in the first place. Certainly, this feels like the church that gave Trump their blessing – or an amalgamation of all the churches that have given Trump their blessing – and the very vigour of their evangelical rhetoric feels as apocalyptic as Trump himself. As I am sure will occur at the end of Trump’s presidency – whenever that will be – Election Year ends by framing the purge as an aberration, a historical glitch to be smoothed over. That it does so in such an implausible and fantastic fashion, however, is the crowning touch to this most astute and unsettling of recent dystopian franchises.