The Purge: Anarchy movie review: standing up to power and privilege
Doubles down on the first film’s angry approach to class, inequality, and violence, and once again reflects an image of America that is ugly but only slightly distorted.
I’m “biast” (pro):
loved the first film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Last year, The Purge astonished me with one of the most daring speculative conceits to come out of a Hollywood studio in maybe forever, or certainly since the dystopic sci-fi of the 1970s. In a near-future America under what appears to be a religious dictatorship called the New Founding Fathers, all crime including murder is permitted — nay, encouraged — one night a year for a 12-hour period called the Purge. Vague religious justifications about “cleansing” smash up against the American “right” to be armed to the teeth and defend oneself against all threats, perceived or actual, with hints that Purge Night is a justification for eliminating the poor, who are unable to protect themselves adequately during a violent free-for-all. The very narrow perspective of the film can account for some of the possible implausibilities and impracticalities that would beset such a scenario in reality: the story takes place entirely within the upper-middle-class home of a well-off family whose protective bunkering for the night is shattered, but not before we get a taste of the propaganda, some or all of which may not be true, that the American people are subjected to regarding the Purge and how successful and all-American it is. So it’s all just plausible enough to succeed as a breathtakingly direct confrontation of the American culture of violence. I still can’t believe Hollywood, which trades on that culture, actually had anything to do with.
Now, with The Purge: Anarchy, we get the other side of what it’s like to hunker down — or not — on Purge Night. With just a slight opening up of his intentionally ugly concept, returning writer and director James DeMonaco deals with a few of the questions the first film raised and doubles down on the angry issues of class, inequality, and violence that the first film broached.
One of those questions: Could people really turn off their sense of morality for one night? We might have guessed that the answer, at least for many people, would be No, and we see as much here in the unnamed putative badass (Frank Grillo: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Homefront) who sets out on Purge Night to get revenge for a wrong that has been done him (we don’t learn what that wrong is for quite a while). But he gets sidetracked — he simply cannot help himself — rescuing Eva (Carmen Ejogo: Pride and Glory, The Brave One) and her teenaged daughter Cali (Zoë Soul: Prisoners), who have been dragged out of their apartment by mysterious paramilitary troopers and are about to be led away to some presumably awful fate as Badass intervenes. And then he cannot turn away married couple Shane (Zach Gilford: Devil’s Due, The Last Stand) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez: A Perfect Getaway, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium), who also need protection: their car broke down as they were on their way to their safe Purge Night place, and now they’re being chased by scary dudes in scary masks, who probably want to kill them just for fun.
There’s a certain irony in the fact that as DeMonaco shows us what the fullest expression of rage-fueled entitlement backed up by firepower means, it’s the downtrodden who get to step into the forefront here. Before meeting up with Badass, Eva and Cali were menaced by their super, a disgusting man who insisted that Purge Night meant he was gonna get to indulge his “right” to do whatever he wants with the women, regardless of what they want. (Hint: They don’t want him.) Hampering the little group’s attempts to get across town to a potential safe place are, um, activities connected to how the rich get to “cleanse” and “release the beast” without putting themselves in danger (like by being out on the streets on Purge Night). At first I thought it was wonderful to see that of this group of five central characters, three of them are women, two of them not white. And then I realized it was even more wonderful, because even though this society has forced Eva and Cali into a victim slot — they’re poor women at the mercy of the rich and of men — they are in no way victims. There’s a very conscious point to be taken from the fact that our heroes here are, by a slim majority, women.
Where the first film played around with the morality of horror movies — particularly regarding how movies manipulate our feelings about the violence we’re witnessing in what was essential a home-invasion flick — Anarchy does something similar with videogame movies. This is the second movie this year (after Edge of Tomorrow) that feels more like a videogame than any movie that’s ever been based on a game: navigating dark city streets while unseen snipers are shooting at you, and avoiding other deadly obstacles, is very gamelike, and later there’s a sequence that overtly references gaming… because that’s what Purge Night can be if you have the right resources. Except here, we are sympathizing with the NPCs, and we want them to win. But the game is rigged against them, as it always is. There’s a privilege in being a player, in all senses of the word.
What other Hollywood films address such matters so bluntly? I can’t think of any. With Anarchy, DeMonaco holds his mirror up again to America, and the image it reflects isn’t a very distorted one. Unpleasant, yes, but far from unrecognizable.