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The Purge: Election Year: American Horror Story

‘The Purge’ franchise gets political right in the middle of our own nightmare campaign season

No, there are no Trump jokes in The Purge: Election Year. There's no killer who looks like a squirrel who's lost his nuts. The man to fear is more normal: slender, gray-haired, religious, staid. He looks like a candidate who'd get millions of votes in the comparatively civilized days of 2012. (Put down that pitchfork, Mitt Romney.) Every cynic knows the real villain isn't the guy up front but the suits behind him: a blurry room of men (and their token woman) sipping scotch from crystal tumblers and tut-tutting that "idealistic pigs" must accept that there's simply "not enough to go around." The poor have two choices: stay poor or die.

Three-time Purge director James DeMonaco shoots this plain-speaking presidential cabal through haze. There are few close-ups because the individual faces don't matter. The whole movie is like that, an allegory that inks clear parallels between this violent America and ours and then smudges the evidence. These campaign funders aren't Republicans — here, that word doesn't exist — but if you associate that label with DeMonaco's clan of shadowy old white men used to controlling the world, that's on you.

And I'm sure it's just a coincidence that opposition leader Senator Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a "wild-card independent" just one point behind in the polls, is a brainy blonde. Eighteen years ago on Purge Night, a murderer forced her family to play "Mommy's Choice." She was the only survivor. If elected, her vow to abolish The Purge evokes three polarized responses: hope, skepticism, and an outcry that she's stealing our freedom, as if these annual 12 hours of armed chaos are how the founding fathers imagined their "well-regulated militia." George Washington must've daydreamed about psychotic schoolgirls in masks and tutus shooting their parents. I'll at least have nightmares about this one, played by Brittany Mirabile, who cranks up the crazy — and the Miley Cyrus — while cruising down the streets in a sedan covered in Christmas lights like a drugged-out spring breaker. To kill or be killed? This not-so-sci-fi 2025 thriller captures a familiar helplessness: How can you protect yourself from guns without strapping on your own?

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While convenience store owner Joe (Mykelti Williamson) and his favorite employee Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) guard their Washington, D.C. shop from the fabulous Miss Mirabile, police sergeant turned secret service agent Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) — a survivor of The Purge: Anarchy — is tasked with protecting the populist senator, despite her refusal to hide in a one-percenter's bunker. She'll stay home, thank you, like the majority of voters. Mitchell plays her like a stubborn optimist, but there's a noble quiver in her voice when she admits she's scared — there's courage in choosing fear. Still, raise your hand if you think they'll have a quiet night in.

What's more unexpected is how well this third Purge expands its slim, nasty premise. The claustrophobic first film cared only about Ethan Hawke's rich daddy protecting his castle from thugs. It ended with a capitalistic shiv: The wealthy fear the faceless needy, but their worst enemies are their neighbors. Election Year stretches further, grabbing at any parallel it can. DeMonaco opens with a black activist (Edwin Hodge) decrying The Purge as "legalized murder" — shades of Black Lives Matter — and rallies on to accuse insurance companies of making money off destruction, pressuring working-class folks like Joe and Marcos to risk their lives to save their future. Later, the news sure sounds like Trump when it warns of foreigners immigrating to murder Americans. We meet them, dressed ironically in patriotic rave wear the way stoners party on the Fourth of July — there are glow-stick Lady Liberty crowns and bloodied powdered wigs. But DeMonaco deliberately casts only white aliens from Russia and South Africa. Even in a movie with rhinestoned AR-15s, ISIS is going too far.

When Election Year elbows too hard, we giggle — say, when "P-U-R-G-E" is scrawled in blood on the marble columns of the Lincoln Memorial. An alley guillotine screams French Revolution. But DeMonaco makes small choices I admire. For once, no woman gets threatened with rape. Instead, ladies seem to be the aggressors, and as we cruise the streets of D.C. we see wives stabbing and incinerating husbands, or dancing around a tree strung with male corpses. Meanwhile, brave volunteer Laney (Betty Gabriel) puts her own safety in danger to rescue the injured — and handcuff the furious kids who insist they're still fine to fight.

In the three years since the first Purge was a hit, we've been forced to admit there's a lot more anger in the world than we realized. Partially, that's due to global economic inequality. And partially, it's because we're a species with anger in our blood. We're civilized now — or at least we largely agree to act like it most of the time. We're no longer slaying rival cavemen nor slicing our supper's throat. But violence still vibrates inside us, whimpering for an excuse to lash out. (Purge Night, March 21, happens to be the anniversary of the launch of Twitter.) If we've learned anything from Trump rallies, it's that people readily rip off that mask of civilization in a supportive crowd. Take comfort in the two tough new heroes Election Year enlists in the battle for peace: Gabriel's mighty black female and Soria's fearless Mexican immigrant. Go ahead, GOP, or whatever your new Purge name is. I dare you to put them behind a wall.