Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: The Purge: Anarchy

by Patrick Bromley
If you're going to a make a Purge movie, this is probably how you should make a Purge movie.

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've seen The Purge, you already know the premise: in the not-too-distant future, both the crime and poverty rates are essentially at zero thanks to The Purge, one night a year in which all crime is legal for 12 hours. Into this scenario, Anarchy introduces a group of strangers: a mother (Carmen Ejogo) with a teenage daughter (Zoƫ Soul) who subscribes to the teachings of an underground anti-Purge prophet (played by The Wire's Omar B. Cummin), a couple (Kiele Sanchez and Zach Gilford) in crisis and a man (Frank Grillo) armed to the teeth and out for some unspecified revenge. They're all caught out in the city on Purge night -- except Grillo, who's there because he wants to be -- and must stick together in order to survive the night.

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.
One of the things the sequel has going for it over the original is that the characters are somewhat better developed and that we actually like them for the most part. We want them to survive, and DeMonaco chooses this time to show how people are capable of working together instead of focusing on how they turn on one another when things go to shit. Frank Grillo is the obvious standout, playing a kind of updated Punisher character (should Marvel ever choose to reboot that franchise [ugh], let's hope Grillo is on the short list of actors considered for the part) who enters the fray with revenge on his mind but can't help being a good guy. That's part of what keeps Anarchy from being completely nihilistic. It's not so optimistic about our current class divide, but there is, at its center, a kind of hopefulness about mankind's capacity for good that cuts through some of the bleakness. Grillo continues to impress in every movie in which he appears -- particularly the genre stuff -- and is fast becoming an actor whose participation alone is reason enough for me to see something. He kicks ass.

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.
There are plot diversions that don't exactly pay off, like the fact that Sanchez and Gilford have recently decided to separate. Does it have a major bearing on the movie? Not really. But it's a detail that I still really like, because it makes the point that the characters have problems other than The Purge. If those 12 hours of violence were the only thing these people were worried about, the movie wouldn't work. Anarchy shows us that society marches on like normal, its inhabitants dealing with problems from the major to the mundane. The Purge is such an accepted fact of life that they can focus on things like marital issues or needing extra shifts at work.

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.
The audience with which I saw the film on opening day was made up primarily of young people ranging in age from 11 to 17. Ignoring the fact that many of them technically shouldn't have been at an R-rated movie (and that it made for an unpleasant viewing experience), we have to ask ourselves what it is about the premise that appeals to young people? Is it just the fantasy wish fulfillment of living in a world without rules or consequence? That this movie exists at all is proof of the point it is very bluntly making: we are angry, we are fed up and living in a powder keg. The success of the series is evidence that DeMonaco has tapped into something.

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.


  1. What's most surprising here is the positive word-of-mouth you got for the first Purge. I, and everyone I've talked to about it, absolutely hated it. I hated how such a great, out-there premise was wasted by poorly recreating the last 20 minutes of Straw Dogs. And I especially hated a movie that was supposed to be so brutal and violent was filled with a bunch of childish, screenwriting 101 gimmicks. Oh, the kid is a brilliant inventor and is always driving around an RC-camera? That's convenient. Ugh, I hate the Purge.

    That being said....I'm probably going to see The Purge: Anarchy. You've sold me Patrick! Solid review again.

  2. Great review! I don't think we see eye to eye on this movie but your review gave me some things to think about. Koba extends his hand :-)

  3. What, you don't like The Punisher? Maybe it's just me but I thought that last War Zone was so much fun. Plus I really like the idea of the character.

    I haven't seen any of the Purge movies, but now I'll have to give the 2nd one a chance. Although I don't think it will live up to You're Next. That movie was great! But, open mind and all that...

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