by Philip Price
Having re-watched the first ‘Purge’ before going to see this quickly developed sequel I was reminded of what a good premise had been so messily squandered in execution. The idea of focusing in on one situation or opening up the world and giving a more well-rounded view is a difficult dilemma. Had the writer/director of both films, James DeMonaco, done with his premise the first time what he's done here he might have been criticized for trying to do too much. After having seen the sequel though it is clear that with such a layered and complicated world the possibilities might have been overwhelming to DeMonaco who chose to keep things simple the first time around. With the first film becoming a financial success though the studio was quick to greenlight and push into development a follow-up less than a year later which can, presumably, only boost a guys confidence. With that confidence DeMonaco has opened up his slightly futuristic world into what his one lawless night a year might be like not only for different individuals, but different classes of people according to society's structure. Given expectations weren't high for “The Purge: Anarchy” I'll try not to get too excited about how much better it is than the original while hopefully re-enforcing the fact it's still not a great or exceptional piece of cinema. Instead, this is a film that knows its end goal and accomplishes those goals well and does in fact deliver more on the promise of its interesting premise than its predecessor. From the advertising to the blatant acts of violence described as patriotism these films have always had a commentary in the back of their minds on the class systems of society and where our current situation may lead us. In this vein of thinking these films are more science fiction than horror in the way they preach nonviolence with violence and describe how escalating violence and economic issues brought the country to a breaking point that resulted in this annual event. These are naturally the more interesting aspects of the film and in Anarchy DeMonaco plays each of them up as he highlights the experiences of different groups of people from different ethnic and economic backgrounds creating a more captivating story and strong jeopardy we can all relate to.
Set one year after the events of the previous films purge we first meet Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress at a diner, as she heads home from work a couple of hours before the purge is set to commence. Her strained home situation is brought to our attention due to her lack of income from the diner as she tries to support a daughter (Zoë Soul) and her sick father (John Beasley). We are then introduced to what appear to be a well-to-do couple in Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) who are going through a rough patch in their marriage. Besides the fact they probably shouldn't be driving the streets of the city so close to the beginning of the purge if they don't intend to participate they are also being followed by a group wearing masks and riding bikes led by Keith Stanfield who clearly plan to participate and subsequently become helpless after their car breaks down. Coincidence? Nope. Finally, there is the mysterious man simply known to us as Sergeant (Frank Grillo) who it's clear has a vendetta against a certain individual after something has happened to his son. You can speculate on what Sergeant's motivations are the entire film as it never comes out and says it until the final minutes, but from the hints dropped in his first scene you will no doubt be right on the major points. This isn't what is important though, what matters about Grillo's Sergeant is that despite his eagerness, his need to participate in the purge-his situation illustrates a major flaw in the idea of this "cleansing of the soul" actually becoming a tool to purify society. Whereas these thoughts of issues with the purge felt like unaccounted for caveats in the first film DeMonaco plays them to his advantage this time as his wider view of the event gives way to more avenues of exploring the various faults with the system. This group of characters who are brought together in convincing fashion and play well off one another fuel the themes at play as well and deliver an involving journey through the levels of how different classes approach their purging.
As I watched “The Purge: Anarchy” unfold I began asking myself several questions as to what the stance most individuals might take on this event would be were it to become a reality. One might consider the rest of the review a discussion in spoilers, so...Why, near the end of the film, are we treated to a ‘Hunger Games’-esque scenario in which the elite auction off the chance to kill in a safe environment? Would this government sanctioned "holiday" really become a spectator sport or would it not eventually get to the point where those with a need to kill canceled each other out? The point DeMonaco has seemed to hint at in both films is that the point of the purge is for no other reason than to rid the country of the poor and thus the worry of having to care about them. I considered as I tried to play out the reality of the situation in my head with how many people might simply choose to not participate, that when it came down to it, people wouldn't be able to kill in order to make themselves feel better. It occurred to me that of course, and depressingly, there are people who would find glee in such an opportunity and would take advantage of it to the point society would eventually be reduced to only those types of people and a mindset regressing more than it already has. To each of these considerations and thoughts DeMonaco gives us a surrogate by placing the concerns on the conscience of the characters. Grillo's Sergeant is the man seeking revenge which shines a light on what people might be like to one another the rest of the year so that retribution isn't found in them on purge night. Eva and her daughter are low-class targets the purge seeks to eradicate as seen by a SWAT team that infiltrates their apartment building with questionable motives and backing. Cali (Soul) finds truth in an underground movement led by Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) who pushes to answer violence with violence making those who support the right to own firearms a strong case while the inclusion of Shane and Liz gives a "caught in the crosshairs" perspective that even those uninterested in the event are pulled in due to the simple fact the violence is allowed. They are suspect to the thought that guns will make them safer, but in this world they pay the price for that line of thought giving the other side of the fence room in the conversation.
That a film like this, which might be considered little more than torture porn in more prestigious realms of writing, is thought-provoking enough to get me as involved as I felt seems an accomplishment in itself. That being said, this still very much has the hand of an amateur director at the helm with acting that is more reacting that actually invoking any kind of genuine emotion. We like the characters, especially Eva and Cali who have the most appeal, but we aren't necessarily shocked by one or more of their fates because of the nature of the film. Grillo is a more than capable actor with a presence that has been gaining more and more traction over the past few years and that presence is what solidifies his influence here. He is a hulking figure that places a shadow over the helpless few he decides to aid on a night where he his sole purpose has been derailed by his inability to detach himself from his conscience. While Shane and Liz are the least developed contributors to the story both Gilford and Sanchez are more than able to pull off a credible yet tumultuous relationship that doesn't have us snickering at the screen. More than any real qualms with the way the story is conveyed through the actors though it is the way in which DeMonaco, for example, captures his fight scenes with shaky cam that is substitute for any real aptitude of what it takes to evoke emotions through imagery rather than just plot points and people’s faces. Being his third directorial feature we might expect a little more from DeMonaco as a filmmaker at this point, but if things go his way it seems he will have plenty more opportunities to evolve this world and his skills. I said in my review of “The Purge” last year that while the Sandin's weren't generally people we could empathize with the homeless man (Edwin Hodge) allowed into their house who incited the incidents of that film also became the audiences point of entry into what the purge was really about. In giving us this insight it also helped us realize what a bad idea it is and how, on a bigger scale, its system will ultimately fail. It seems DeMonaco agreed with that line of thinking as he wedges into the expansive scope of ‘Anarchy’ the continued plight of this bloodied stranger towards what seems will become full-fledged revolution in “The Purge: Revolution” next summer.