While The Purge series is, technically, a trilogy, the horror films couldn't feel more distinct. The first Purge is a tense, claustrophobic home invasion where you're only getting the perspective of one family. The sequel, Anarchy, is like a chaotic episode of The Walking Dead — just replace zombies with murderous Purgers running amok in Los Angeles.
Yet the franchise's most effective horror comes in its third installment: Election Year. As the name implies, Election Year is an overtly political film that relies heavily on present-day politics (as expected, the upcoming presidential election, in particular) and social issues.
(Editor's note: Spoilers for The Purge: Election Year ahead).
In turn, Election Year posits that this time, the audience's fear shouldn't come from the Purgers. Rather, it's the wealthy, white elite that support the Purge — those who parallel America's most ardent gun rights advocates — who are the true antagonists of the film.
Election Year is the first Purge film to genuinely consider whether or not the public fully backs an annual, 12-hour window where all crime, including murder, is legal. A progressive senator looking to end the Purge, Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), is mounting a serious challenge to the New Founding Fathers of America, who have supported the Purge for nearly two decades. Roan, a blonde-haired female politician, is a pretty clear Hillary Clinton proxy.
But why does the NFFA support the Purge? As Anarchy hinted, and Election Year expounds on, it's an effective way of whittling down the lower-class that might burden the economy. The poor generally don't have the resources to protect themselves on Purge night, so they suffer the most casualties. Insurance companies — who sell literal "Purge insurance" — and the NRA are the other big beneficiaries.
Clearly, then, the people who would support Roan's presidential bid are the Latino and black communities marginalized by the Purge. The film makes this clear: A black man, black woman and Latino man help keep Roan safe during Election Year's Purge night alongside her bodyguard Leo (Frank Grillo), after Roan's compound is attacked by a militia group.
The militia — naturally, comprised of white supremacists with swastika tattoos and confederate flags on their uniforms — are being funded by the NFFA to capture her. Their presidential candidate, Minister Edwidge Owens (Kyle Secor), is hoping to "Purge" her inside a church.
Owens, interestingly, doesn't bear much resemblance to Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, despite Election Year's "Keep America Great" marketing campaign. Instead, the character takes the form of more fundamentalist religious candidates who have since bowed out of the race. He has a Ted Cruz-esque creepiness and bears a physical likeness to Rick Perry.
However, their support for the Purge is a harrowing look at how gun rights advocates value, well, their guns. Just as gun owners point to the Second Amendment for their right to bear arms, Purge loyalists demand the chance to "Purge and Purify," in spite of the harmful consequences. The potential consequences for both — though more transparent in an annual, government-approved killing spree — is violence.
If the violence against the poor and other marginalized groups isn't obvious enough, Election Year shows who the white elite choose to Purge at their churches. As Roan is captured and bound by the militia, she watches as the church's priest wheels out a man described as a drug addict — someone the NFFA supporters tell themselves they are saving by having him killed for their own tradition.
Roan does have support, however, with an Anti-Purge leftist group who comes to her aide in the church. But that's also where Election Year compromises its message. Every member of the group with dialogue is a black man, and Election Year isn't shy about suggesting that they're the dystopian version of the Black Lives Matter movement. But this movement combats violence with violence of its own. Its members initially planned to assassinate Owens in the church. In turn, the movie argues, they wouldn't be all that different from the antagonists.
"The instant that the rebellion by the film's men of color threatens the promise of a peaceful ascent to power that accompanies Sen. Roan's presidential bid, Election Year suddenly can't stop reminding us that violent action against the powerful elite is bad," Aja Romano wrote for Vox.
That's not to suggest that Election Year should be devoid of violence — theatergoers are, in part, here to watch a group set up a guillotine in an alley and behead people. But what separates Election Year from its predecessors is having heroes who can actually stop the Purge from happening. If these people actually want to make this dystopic America great again — and Roan being elected suggests they do — they can't make the same mistakes as the wealthy elite.