The Purge: Anarchy bets heavily on that last option. The film revisits the imaginative near-future United States that writer/director James DeMonaco dreamed up for 2013’s home invasion flick, The Purge, but follows an entirely different set of characters. In an effort to cut down on crime and keep rising populations in check, the NFFA – New Founding Fathers of America – established the annual Purge, a 12-hour stretch of night during which all crime, up to and including heinous acts of murder and rape, is fair game.
The Purge was fairly criticized for squandering such an interesting high-concept pitch by setting its events in and around a single family trapped in their home. The film’s tantalizing glimpse of a nation that has processed and codified its sociopathic tendencies was little more than set dressing while the story zeroed in on the “plight” of a white, well-to-do family in the suburbs.
DeMonaco’s insane proposition of creating a better world through controlled violence doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but it sure creates a thrilling portrait.
The five characters at the heart of the film, all stuck outside on Purge night and thrown together by circumstances outside their control, are little more than flesh-and-blood cameras to show the world through. Character development is minimal for what amounts to cardboard cutouts that seem to exist for the sole purpose of peering at the various depravities that unfold.
There’s the tough-talking, gun-toting hardass (Frank Grillo) who’s out to “purge” (cleanse through killing, in the lexicon of the movie) for a very specific reason. There’s the projects-dwelling mother-and-daughter twosome (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) who dream of a better life. And there’s the bickering husband-and-wife (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) who are on the brink of a separation.
None of it matters. The 100-minute running time is dominated by the scenes of outrageous violence that these character stumble into. Whether it’s a gangland beating or a twisted one-percenter auction in which the wealthy bid on humans that they then hunt, Anarchy’s journey provides a window into the wider world and little more than that.
The most interesting character, a freedom fighter who sees the Purge as the poverty-culling event that it actually is (played by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams), only gets a handful of scenes. His push against the System initially holds some promise, but it ultimately exists only to justify an improbable “save-the-day” moment that occurs midway through the final act. The stars get just enough development to help a viewer follow their all-too-predictable arcs.
As with The Purge, it’s Anarchy’s everyone’s-a-sociopath take on violence that keeps things moving. These characters exist in a grim world, a place where, one night a year, everyone is permitted to live out their most violent fantasies. Here, the rich purchase the sick and the elderly so entire families can commit murder together from the safety of their protected estates. Armored, government-sponsored kill squads cleanse entire apartment projects. There’s no room for small children or the infirm. When you’re too poor to afford a walled compound, but not so penniless that you can’t buy a firearm, the choice is simple: purge or die.
DeMonaco’s insane proposition of creating a better world through controlled violence doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny, but it sure creates a thrilling portrait. The director’s reliance on jump-scares to keep the audience on edge is surprisingly effective. The Purge: Anarchy is fraught with problems, but it is at least exciting.
The first Purge took an original idea and built a story around it that didn’t do enough to examine the broader social implications of legally sanctioned violence. The Purge: Anarchy addresses the criticisms directed at its predecessor with a broadened scope, but in so doing it loses sight of the characters who are caught up in these events. DeMonaco’s grim, seemingly impossible vision of a near-future United States isn’t completely without merit, but Anarchy’s gauntlet of violent escapism is ultimately too aimless to matter to anyone other than actual sociopaths.