I want to kill that asshole. I want that fucker dead. The jerk who cut me off. That creep down the hall. My boss. My ex. That liberal sissy. That Tea Party lunatic. I’d make him pay. I’d make them all pay. Just one day is all I ask…
Everyone’s felt that level of anger at one time or another. Whether we like it or not, it’s fused into our souls. The wise among us know that acting on those feelings carry consequences well beyond a life in a tiny room with a bunkmate named Killdozer, but that rage still crops up in moments of stress. The chief gimmick of the Purge series involves giving us one night where we can act on such feelings without consequences, then sits back and shows us the logical end point. It’s the old nature vs. nurture debate writ large, forcing us to wonder how we would behave if such violence were not only allowed but encouraged.
As you may imagine, a fair amount of politics comes into the equation too, which the The Purge: Anarchy embraces with far more gusto than the original Purge. Class warfare becomes literal on the streets of its future LA, along with some seething populist unrest in keeping with our troubled times. The tactic proves to be a double-edged sword. We get a little more to chew on this time around, but the focus on rich vs. poor eventually leads to an old “resistance group fighting the Orwellian hegemony” cliché that ran out of gas long about 1988.
Thankfully, the rest of the film carries the same grindhouse appeal that the first Purge did, giving us a larger glimpse of this world and confirming that the central hook can support about a zillion more movies. We fast forward one year from the last film. Another Purge Night is upon us, when the “New Founding Fathers” of the United States suspend all police and emergency services for 12 hours. Anything goes on the streets… and sometimes even in the locked-down homes where sensible citizens try to ride out the violence in peace. There’s a more sinister pattern to it all, of course. The night allows the Powers That Be to kill off the homeless, the poor, and any other drags on society, allowing everyone else to live happier, more prosperous lives the rest of the year. Crime drops to nothing. Unemployment is staggeringly low. Everyone periodically fist-pumps at how awesome life is, and the unfortunates who don’t make it on Purge Night are just part of the price we pay for a prosperous society.
So it is on a fresh evening when three disparate groups of people find themselves in downtown LA when the sirens go off. Only one (Frank Grillo) is there by choice, an ex-military man with a dead son to avenge. The others are innocents: a feuding couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down at the worst possible time; and a mother-daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul)hiding in their homes and targeted by forces unknown for reasons that become all too clear as the night proceeds. Against them stand the assembled hordes of the City of Angels: most of them on a self-destructive rampage but a few with a focus that makes them even scarier in comparison.
Director James DeMonaco sticks mainly with the sinewy guts of the thing, as various pieces of subhuman pond scum come at our heroes and are summarily dispatched. Like the first film, the button-pushing gets to be a little much. The villains are so unspeakably awful and their come-uppance so lovingly depicted that any larger point the film hopes to make gets lost amid the crudity. In that sense, the movie itself comes to resemble its subject, as we all get a vicarious thrill from the suffering of figures who seem to deserve it. It’s nothing new with exploitation cinema, though the nature of The Purge movies make us much more aware of it than we might be.
And to its credit, the movie doesn’t let the opportunity pass. Though the “fight-the-man” vibes serve as more of a distraction than a comment, it still makes a lot of interesting observations during its long dark night. It also stays away from overt preaching (besides, you know, that the Purge kind of sucks), preferring to open the room for discussion and let us draw our own conclusions. That elevates the more straightforward point-and-click material for those so inclined, and allowing those who just want a shoot-em-up to indulge without fighting through a lot of heavy-handed messaging. The cast is game, particularly Grillo, who commands the screen effortlessly and give us yet another reason to look forward to Captain America 3. (“We need to see him as The Punisher,” I told my wife after the screening. “I think we just did,” she replied.)
Pauline Kael once said that we should embrace great trash because great art was so darn rare. The Purge films are resolutely trash, but they can be great trash if you let them, and they really do tug at the fundaments of our psyche. They work because we can feel the emotions they’re talking about and because the world they depict runs closer to our own than we might want to believe. You can’t expect much from them, but their concept holds true and for a quick, dirty night at the movies they seem to have our number. They’ll be more of them, I have no doubt, and while this one never exceeds our expectations, it still finds its share of other reasons to tune in. Are we ourselves purging with it? Maybe. At least The Purge: Anarchy forces us to examine the equation instead of trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist.