It took me a year before I finally got around to seeing James DeMonaco's surprise 2013 smash The Purge, so maybe my lukewarm reaction should be taken with a grain of salt. I missed the cultural conversation around it (as though there was one) and had a year's worth of mostly positive word of mouth overinflating my expectations. The movie is fine; it's well-directed and manages to sneak in a bit of social commentary, but its premise-to-delivery ratio is way off. It takes a good idea and fails to explore it. But maybe I'm just holding a grudge because its success (it grossed $90 million on a $3 million budget) ended up cockblocking You're Next -- a movie I like a lot more -- despite the latter being made two years prior.
Now here's The Purge: Anarchy, a sequel that is superior to the original film in every way. Building on the premise of the original movie but moving the action outside the walls of Ethan Hawke's mansion to the city streets as they burn, Anarchy is a violent, intense, angry, political, often nasty but ultimately human film that could only exist at this point in our history. There's nothing subtle about it, but DeMonaco deserves credit for making political commentary that's this blunt and angry but still manages to be darkly entertaining.
If you haven't seen The Purge, don't worry; the basic premise is the only thing that carries over. You don't need to be at all familiar with the events of the first movie. In fact, The Purge: Anarchy makes the original almost completely irrelevant by virtue of the fact that it's the only movie of the two to, you know, actually be about The Purge. The first movie uses writer/director DeMonaco's clever premise (if nonsensical; there's little attempt to explain why breaking the law for 12 hours discourages an entire society from doing it the remaining 8, 748 hours a year) as grounds for a standard home invasion film. This one actually deals with the events and ramifications of a nationwide, 12-hour murder spree.
Though its reputation and marketing suggest a horror movie, Anarchy is much more of an action film -- the kind of violent siege movie that was popular during the exploitation heyday of the late 1970s (it reminded me a lot of some early John Carpenter). That's what the movie is after all: an exploitation movie dressed up as something mainstream. Had it been made 20 years ago and just rediscovered in 2014, critics and cult movie enthusiasts would be raving about how ahead of its time it is, praising its savage beauty and incendiary political commentary -- that it's a genre movie with a lot on its mind, even when it can only express it in the bluntest way possible. Instead, it comes out in the middle of the busy summer season and gets lumped in with all of the other mindless blockbusters. It only sort of belongs there.
DeMonaco has also improved as a filmmaker from the first movie to its sequel. The Purge was a well-directed movie and DeMonaco demonstrated good formalist instincts about how to compose a shot, but the larger scope of Anarchy has freed him up to stage more ambitious, more visually arresting moments. For all the savagery on display, the movie is very slick; DeMonaco finds a number of violently beautiful images -- a burning bus tearing through an intersection, a random woman covered in blood -- but doesn't let his camera linger on them (unfortunately, many of them are already given away in the trailer). The movie is good at suggesting a larger world outside its frame; for every block we see burn, we know there are seven on fire around it.
Having seen the (very good) trailer for the movie, I can say that there are no real surprises in The Purge: Anarchy. Once again, a studio marketing department has decided to spoil an entire movie in order to sell it to audiences. Perhaps I would have liked the movie even more if so much of it had not been telegraphed by the trailer, or if DeMonaco had taken the story in directions someone who has seen a number of movies couldn't have easily predicted. But, again, the power of The Purge: Anarchy isn't in its narrative so much as it is in its visceral impact.
There are those who will argue that The Purge: Anarchy is yet another "rich people are bad" movie. That's dismissive, even coming as the film does on the heels of Snowpiercer and Elysium and the Hunger Games franchise. No, the movie does not cast the wealthy in a positive light. It also does not cast those living in poverty in a positive light. Everyone is looking for an excuse to act like a monster. Everyone has rage and violence they want to release. That it happens only once a year merely underscores the tenuous civility of our society -- we politely act our roles and pretend to get along but carry anger and resentment boiling underneath at all times. I don't think it's making too far a leap to suggest a parallel with the actual tenor of the country these days. This isn't a movie about how the 1% are wrong and the 99% are right. It's about what can happen when such a divide exists at all.
I've said over and over again that movies need only work on the level on which they are intended. That's true of genre movies most of all. The Purge: Anarchy is a well-directed piece of genre filmmaking: intense, violent and scary. That it has something to say and reflects back a specific moment in our culture is a huge bonus. It might be written off right now as stupid trash, but time is going to be good to this one.