Review: The Purge: Anarchy

Note: This article was previously published at Movie Mezzanine.

“It’s not about catharsis… it’s about money,” a character says at the beginning of The Purge: Anarchy. He might as well be talking about the film itself (and all the inevitable sequels). Last year’s horror offering The Purge was a sleeper hit that ended up making over twenty times its budget at the box-office, so it’s hard not to view Hollywood’s insistence on churning out a follow-up within a year as anything other than a frantic cash-grab. Yet surprisingly, the high concept premise – in the future, America institutes an annual 12-hour period in which all crime is legal – is strong enough to remain thematically resonant. The Purge: Anarchy isn’t just the best mainstream film of the summer; it cements the series’ status as one of the most timely and unfortunately necessary cultural satires of the past few years.

Where The Purge focused its premise on a simple home invasion as an excuse to explore more complicated moral concerns, the sequel expands its scope both in location and theme. Anarchy takes the carnage to the city streets, as a group of middle- and lower-class civilians struggle to survive the Purge. Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are grappling with their disintegrating relationship when their car breaks down, stranding them downtown. Meanwhile, Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul) find their meager home defenses are no match against a misogynistic neighbor and organized street gangs. They all eventually find themselves under the protection of a nameless Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a gun-toting, muscle-car-driving former policeman with violent motives of his own. The script offers a flimsy reason for him to stick with them, but as with the first film, the plot exists mainly as an excuse to examine our cultural fascination with violence.

It’s in that examination that director James DeMonaco is most successful. Each scene finds Sergeant and the gang encountering another form of societal violence, from poor-on-poor killing sprees to organized uprisings to luxury murder parties. Even moreso than the first film, violence in The Purge: Anarchy is presented as a systemic disease, a plague that’s been perpetuated by our most trusted institutions to such an extent that it now seems inherent to the very concept of America. One scene finds a woman on a rooftop with a sniper rifle, claiming that her purge isn’t just her duty, it’s God’s will. The language of “catharsis” and “cleansing” that populated the first film has been replaced with patriotic platitudes about liberty and democracy. In DeMonaco’s dystopian vision of the near-future, the freedom to bear arms against a tyrannical government has been supplanted by the power to use them against anyone for any reason. How appropriate, then, that the most common refrain heard in the film is one of entitled outrage: “This is my right!”

Viewers looking for three-dimensional characters and light directorial flourishes will be disappointed; DeMonaco plays with archetypes and has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Grillo steals the show, bringing genuine screen presence to what could easily be a stock strong and silent routine. His eyes have the worn slow burn of 1960s-era Clint Eastwood, and he carries himself with the casual confidence of Kirk Russell’s Snake Plissken (who was an inspiration for the character). He is the rare performer than can communicate moral depth while simultaneously seeming like he’s capable of anything. The rest of the cast is unfortunately under-written, but what Anarchy lacks in character depth it makes up for in sheer audacity. It’s the kind of movie in which “America the Beautiful” is played over images of assault rifles, gangs in Occupy-style masks terrorize the city, and the wealthy can literally purchase members of the black working class for their own sadistic purposes.

This is a horror franchise in which the villain isn’t an individual, but society itself, and our own violent impulses turned against us. For all the socio-political subtext, it’s also remarkably non-partisan: every jab at the far right is met with one aimed at the left. By painting his dystopian society in such broad strokes, DeMonaco manages to push aside party spin and simply mourn the status quo. There’s an anger teeming beneath the surface, as well as a hint of mourning—the tone isn’t one of escapism, but of lamentation. When the bankers that sent the country into a recession get off scot-free, mass shootings result in no legislative change, violence against our government is touted as patriotic duty, and the President can’t even discuss the wealth gap without being accused of perpetuating class warfare, how does society survive? DeMonaco isn’t painting a picture of what could be; he’s arguing we’re already there.

How do we retain our humanity when so many institutional forces subtly communicate that human life is less valuable than laws, money, and tradition? The first film found its moral center in the simple statement, “No more killing.” Anarchy doesn’t take quite such a radical pacifistic stance, but it does argue that there’s an alternative to violence. The Purge series has thus established itself as one of the most unique franchises at the multiplex: a profitable property that’s socially and morally conscious. Equal parts horror and dark socio-political satire, these films encourage audiences to have the conversations about violence and income inequality our government seems unable to have.

Of course, the film is having its cake and eating it too – sequels will be green-lighted based on how well The Purge: Anarchy sells murder to the populace. But DeMonaco seems to be doing everything he can to still make an anti-violence statement while working within an industry that glorifies killing as profitable entertainment. His aesthetic is dark, grainy, and grungy, never presenting the violence as visually exciting while still taking the audience through the journeys of suspense and catharsis they (perhaps perversely) desire.  The first film’s meta- critique of Hollywood is largely absent in Anarchy, but it’s not completely forgotten. One scene finds rich socialites watching their fellow one-percenters hunt the poor through a glass screen. They look upon the scene with expressions of awe and gleeful anticipation—they might as well be at the movies.

Grade: A-