The first “Purge” movie was a strange mixture of intriguing ideas and wasted potential. It was built upon an absurd concept, but one that could have been explored in an assortment of compelling ways. Instead it turned into a preposterous and heavy-handed mess. Now we have a sequel titled “The Purge: Anarchy” and it offers an interesting contrast to the first film. It examines some of those provocative possibilities I wanted from the first movie. Unfortunately it also makes some of the same frustrating mistakes that may not completely undermine the film, but it does keep it from being as good as it could be.
One beneficial thing about the entire Purge series is that it doesn’t revolve around a specific character or group. This allows it to tell new stories and dive into new ideas. In “Anarchy” we are introduced to three personal storylines. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a waitress who is struggling to support her teenaged daughter and terminally ill father. Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are a young couple on the verge of splitting up. Leo (Frank Grillo) is a man tormented by a past tragedy. He loads several weapons and heads out just as the Purge is about to begin. As you can guess, their lives intersect on the night of the Purge.
Now for those unfamiliar with the idea, the Purge is an annual nationwide event where all law enforcement, fire, and medical services are unavailable and all crime (including murder) becomes legal for a 12-hour period. The idea is that the Purge acts as a catharsis of sorts for the citizens of this new America. In reality it’s used as a means of government-sponsored selective population control implemented by the totalitarian New Founding Fathers. It weeds out the poor and more undesirable sections of the population making the world a better place for the rich and affluent.
The whole concept is still absurd, yet writer/director James DeMonaco does offer up some intriguing metaphors and biting social allegory. It’s probably not as audacious or provocative as it thinks it is, but it does ask a few good questions and it doesn’t mind pointing fingers at specific problems. When DeMonaco has these things under control they actually add a slightly unnerving and effective undercurrent to the film. Unfortunately he doesn’t maintain control and soon the movie commits the same annoying mistakes as the first film.
This is really frustrating because I was onboard with what DeMonaco was going for. But he doesn’t know when to dial it back and he soon begins to bludgeon you to death his class warfare message. Again, earlier in the film we see this used effectively. Later DeMonaco jettisons all subtlety and tact instead choosing to drown us with heavy-handed preaching on the evils of wealth and upper-crust white people. He also goes beyond the class messaging and into an arguably tasteless direction. There is a sequence where an underground Black Panther-like movement has a gunfight with the guards of a psycho rich group. Now perhaps its the current sociopolitical climate, but the scenes of white people and black people in a violent, bloody shoot-out divided strictly on racial lines came across as senseless and borderline insensitive (not to mention dumb).
The film’s complete lack of any craftiness or interesting nuance during these later scenes had me rolling my eyes and checking out. I don’t think filmmakers should be bound to subtlety when relaying a message or point, but they can wound their story and smother everything else in the film. You can also lose your grasp on telling a good story and that is the case with “The Purge: Anarchy”. The narrative suffers. The characters suffer. The effectiveness of the message suffers.
All of that is truly a shame. “The Purge: Anarchy” wasn’t a great film from the start, but it was surprisingly entertaining. Frank Grillo gives a really good performance and I found myself caring about him and the other characters. But whether it’s due to DeMonaco’s lack of self-control or a conceit he has regarding his central message, the movie flies off the rails and turns into a silly and potentially distasteful joke. Despite the movie’s blundering detour it does get back on track just in time to provide an unexpected satisfying ending.
“The Purge: Anarchy” had a small $9 million budget yet it pulled in over $110 million at the box office so you know another sequel is coming. Hopefully the next installment can capture what this film did well while avoiding the annoying flaws that this film embraced. There is potential here for a biting look at some relevant social and political issues. We see that in “Anarchy”. But it may take someone besides DeMonaco in the driver’s seat before we get it. As it stands “Anarchy” is much better than the first film. It’s just frustrating when you realize it could have been even better.