When The Purge opened last year, the conceit of Americans getting one night to arm themselves with nearly any weapon they wanted and then go on a killing spree felt blatantly absurd in its obviously dark comedy, and yet uncomfortably believable given the news with every passing day. While the movie that attempted to explore this big thematic lead ball of ironic nasty turned out to be a muddled mess, it proved a strong enough idea to wow audiences and industry cynics alike with a huge $34 million opening weekend.
Thirteen months later purging is back with The Purge: Anarchy, a bigger and bloodier sequel that tells its tale on a citywide canvas encompassing nearly all walks of life in Los Angeles. But more importantly (and somewhat surprisingly) James DeMonaco, who wrote and directed The Purge: Anarchy, executes this C4-fueled vision of nihilism with expansive confidence and a clarity of focus in its themes of class warfare and gun culture. By the end, this year’s purge is downright revolutionary, both for the characters and for this suddenly worthwhile franchise.
Instead of focusing on a singular family, The Purge: Anarchy builds its menu of target practice from an ensemble of potential victims. The central heroes are Eva and Cali Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul), a working class single mother and her teenage daughter. Clearly marked by generations of struggle that runs through her family’s blood, Eva has the kind of job that forces her to serve customers at a diner merely two hours away from the annual “holiday” that begins at 7pm once every year. She can afford a small apartment that has locked, grated doors, but in a country that sells shotguns that punch holes through concrete, what protection is that really?
There is also Shane and Liz, played by real life married couple Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez. On the eve of divorce, this hapless white bread onscreen couple barely even notices that it is the eve of the purge until it is too late. After a gang of roving hooligans cuts a hole in their gas tank while they’re stopping for supplies off the highway, they are stranded less than an hour before the purge. Far away from their home.
Eventually both groups come into the orbit of the movie’s strongest character, Leo, played with steely stoicism and wounded, mysterious pathos by Frank Grillo. On his way to exact an unknown debt on this national celebration, he waivers in his mission when he sees Eva and Cali in danger. By saving their lives from the ominously named Big Daddy, Leo becomes ingratiated as the group’s savior and leader through a single nightmarish night that passes with more agony for the characters than Odysseus’ travels. They are going to see every walk of life, from the middle class to the eloquent elite, and how they all use the purge to their advantage.
By staying with several characters forced to wander from one apocalyptic set piece to the next, all the while a gang of “youths” track them like wolves, The Purge: Anarchy takes it to the streets and lives up to its namesake. While the first Purge was a bland, tedious affair with a nouveau riche family trying to keep a band of A Clockwork Orange enthusiasts outside, Anarchy embraces the madness by turning its focus to an ensemble of working class heroes that must organize into a union if they wish to survive the night’s playground of horrors inflicted by the rich.
All of this not-so-hidden subtext is crystallized by Michael K. Williams’ shadowy revolutionary who hisses malcontent across the internet in viral videos. When the purge finally comes, Williams’ Carmelo makes good on promises, including making “their” blood spill.
Yet, there is a certain unavoidable level of hypocrisy about The Purge: Anarchy having its gun and firing it too. This is the biggest micro-budget horror movie from the Blumhouse assembly line that that I’m aware of, and it takes its visceral pleasures in seeing “bad guys” get engulfed in their own flamethrowers, and our heroes both try to survive becoming a Richard Connell lover’s prey, as well as their own avenging hunter. The movie mocks and satirizes America’s obsession with guns, and those who talk about them like they’re sex toys, but the heroes all utilize them to much fanfare in scenes constructed for audience applause.
Fortunately, the film works primarily, because we care about a few of the heroes this time, especially Grillo’s lone gunman. It may be an archetype, but there is nothing wholly altruistic about this dude, who on a cryptic, and ultimately justified, mission of death decides to be the Good Samaritan when he stops a regime bureaucrat from purging Eva and Cali. Grillo brings a well of sincere compassion and humanity both in his reluctant protection of them and in his own suffering, which is never purged; it’s left boiling beneath the surface of the actor’s visage.
On a purely entertainment level, there are several set pieces that will please genre diehards that were left wanting last time out. In particular is the aforementioned flamethrower chase through Los Angeles’ decrepit tunnels where sadists come riding down in a motor vehicle to smoke out all the hiding homeless people while the heroes run for their lives. Also, as given away in the trailer, at one point the entire group is captured by an auctioneer clearinghouse, which specializes in the most refined purges of the night. Judith McConnell as the smiling hostess taking down bids has especially delectable fun in crooning about her preferred shotgun of choice, entering momentary ecstasy when thinking about the chamber firing.
But for all the adrenaline and varied purging locations this one-night odyssey observes in the pits of human existence, the most chilling is a solitary shot witnessed in the trailer. A proud, but destitute grandfather will protect his family by selling himself for $100,000 to an affluent family. His daughter and grandchild will get the money, and the benefactors get him as their guest of honor for the night—which involves a fleeting image of plastic tarp lining their entire decedent living room and four privileged machetes. It is likely that these blades have been passed down from generation to generation, once to hunt the “big five” in Africa, and now ready to gain the most sporting colored target of choice for such sickeningly WASP-y surroundings.
That is true horror, because any viewer knows that is culturally happening every night of the year. In that context, the fictional purge can be almost perfunctory, and The Purge: Anarchy is all the more bitingly honest in its satirical bloodsport.