The Purge: Anarchy Is a Fun-House-Mirror Look at American Class War

Jul 17, 2014 at 4:00 am
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

If the Saw series taught us anything, it's that every quasi-inventive genre movie is fated to become a yearly franchise with increasingly diminishing returns. The Purge practically cried out for this treatment from its premise alone: James DeMonaco's film had a big idea -- a near-future in which "any and all crime, including murder" is made legal one night a year -- but limited its focus to an upscale family's failure to insulate itself from the government-sanctioned carnage. Now The Purge: Anarchy gets down in the muck of downtown Los Angeles with the hoi polloi reveling in the free-for-all and the conscientious objectors stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie bucks the trend -- it's better than the first.

The merry ensemble includes a mother-daughter duo and a youngish couple with car trouble. All four are saved from grisly ends by Sergeant (Frank Grillo), who's armed to the teeth and on an unspecified mission of vengeance on this most celebrated, feared, and reviled of nights. Everyone in this quintet of survivors is reluctant when he becomes the de facto guide -- Sergeant doesn't want to be slowed down, and they don't know what he's doing with so many weapons. With his low-key machismo and tactical expertise, Grillo's performance will make you wonder why he didn't start headlining movies like this before turning 50; his is the soft-spoken kind of charisma that helped make half of the Expendables into stars back in the '80s and '90s.

"Stay safe" is everybody's mantra in the last few hours before the Purge itself begins, and you understand why they say it with such dread, especially as a war horn–like alarm announces the 12-hour battle royal. It signals a point of no return with menacing authority. The frenzied way people make last-minute trips to the grocery store and scramble home as the countdown nears its end makes a case for setting the inevitable third installment on any of the 364 other non-Purge days -- imagine how this night affects everything from vacation schedules and real estate to crimes of passion. There's a chance for compelling world building here, and writer-director DeMonaco has thus far opted out of exploring it.

Fictional dystopias are at their most alluring to both real-world audiences and in-world residents when they carry a utopian sheen, and the great façade of the Purge society is the government- and media-propagated position that the annual bloodletting serves the greater good. DeMonaco's script insists that unemployment and crime are essentially nonexistent, apparently thanks to this violent bacchanal, but the movies make no bones about portraying the well-heeled as the only true beneficiaries of this Shirley Jackson–esque ritual. (They're also its most ignominious participants.)

The country-club set pays the families of terminally-ill "martyrs" to let them murder these ailing loved ones, while street gangs deliver prey for private hunting parties. Watching Sergeant and his four charges fight back against their tuxedo-clad captors is red meat for the 99%, as well as fun house–mirror exaggeration of how our different financial strata shape and determine our base instincts.

In their nighttime roving and casual violence, the film's best scenes resemble nothing so much as the undervalued Escape from L.A. The City of Angels was an anything-goes island prison in John Carpenter's sequel to Escape from New York, and DeMonaco's vision is just as lawless (not to mention thematically blunt). A religious zealot with a megaphone picks off passersby with a rifle in the business district, while a paramilitary group targets poor apartment complexes across town. It's the city as no-man's-land, and Anarchy makes good on one character's nervous (and ultimately quite funny) declaration that "Everyone goes downtown to purge."