Cleanse the Beast
Frank Grillo’s Sergeant in The Purge: Anarchy is armed to the teeth and looking for vengeance, just like almost everybody else out on Purge night. Unlike almost everybody else, though, he’s a good guy. We know this because, when he sees working mom Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoë Soul) being dragged into a truck by a grim-looking crew, Sergeant only hesitates for those crucial few seconds required of every reluctant hero. After that, he spends the rest of the movie driving around accompanied by this pair, and also a bickering married couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez).
By dropping a textbook action hero like Sergeant into the mayhem of the Purge, writer/director James DeMonaco dilutes some of the moral uncertainty that jangled up the home-invasion plot of last year’s The Purge. In that clever bit of exploitation science fiction along with horror, DeMonaco introduced the setting: a near-future America where a government run by the “New Founding Fathers” has instituted an annual 12-hour period when any crime is allowed.
The stated purpose, repeated mantra-like throughout Anarchy, is to “cleanse the beast”. Of course, the idea that a half-day of legal savagery, when some people lock themselves indoors and pray for daylight while others roam the streets looking for blood, would reduce crime or unemployment is ridiculous on its face. But as a license for creating crisply told and politically resonant exploitation filmmaking, it’s close to perfect.
In the first film, the ridiculous rationale left open the suggestion that the Purge’s real purpose was even uglier. What if the big night isn’t a means to purge unwanted impulses, but rather, a way to get rid of unwanted people? In Anarchy, the politics read loud and clear. Sergeant and his carload of charges face down everyone from flamethrower-wielding ATV rednecks to storm troopers cruising around in armored big rigs and nihilist skateboard punks with ghostface makeup and machetes.
In between these episodes, DeMonaco offers signs pointing to the ritual’s foundations in class warfare. When the band comes across a corpse bound with barbed wire over a bank entrance, the camera lingers on the sign around his neck explaining that he was a stockbroker who robbed the killer’s pension. Anti-Purge revolutionary Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) makes the case more persuasively: “Who dies tonight?” he shouts during an agitprop video. “The poor. We can’t afford to defend ourselves.”
We see this underlined by the film’s setting in a generic downtown (Los Angeles skyline and streetscape mixed with the odd Manhattan subway entrance). Where the suburban McMansions of the first film are fully armored, here the working poor can only brace their apartment doors and shiver behind them with handguns.
DeMonaco underlines that sentiment with a pop Marxist fervor. First he litters the screen with ironic flags and pointedly holds the camera on cash whenever it appears. One character even offers himself up to a rich family who want to purge safely from home in order to give his working-stiff daughter $100,000. There even comes a scene where tuxedoed swells bid on the chance to hunt the captured in a controlled arena; their death-mask-like grins and the nightmare theater resemble David Lynch Lite, but the hunt itself is straight B-flick action fodder.
This is the largest problem with Anarchy. Too often, when the film starts to get interesting, DeMonaco falls back on cliché. As a sequel, it is both more ambitious and workmanlike than its predecessor. The absurd extremes of DeMonaco’s story have an expansive quality that leaves acres of room to explore its moral, political, and socioeconomic possibilities.
“We’re anti-Purge in this household,” says a woman who briefly offers Sergeant and his party refuge. Such offhanded references to the question of why some people purge and others don’t are left hanging. Speedy and efficient, the film works within an exploitation narrative idiom, but doesn’t pursue the radical political questions that propel the best examples of the genre.