“The Purge: Anarchy” is, at the risk of being accused of hyperbole, the most enthusiastically anti-American film I have seen within recent memory. Keep in mind that I can remember Lars Von Trier films and Noam Chomsky interviews. Cynics will accuse the new “Purge” as being unintentionally funny. The truth is, the film is very intentional with its angry, caustic, satirical humor. This is hot a horror film, or a thriller, though some sequences in this 100+ minute chase film are admittedly thrilling. This is a livid comedy; one can imagine this film being written by John Oliver and directed by an early 80s John Carpenter. In case the first “Purge” film’s ultra blatant messages about gun culture and economic inequality were lost on, the sequel takes it all the way to 11. Audiences who couldn’t see through the super-obvious left-wing messages of recent sci-fi dystopias like Andrew Niccol’s underrated “In Time” or Blomkamp’s “Elysium” will enjoy the way that the new “Purge” eschews metaphor for a hyper-obvious allegory that repeatedly and cheerfully hits you over the head with its blatant message. Not since Bret Easton Ellis used a serial murderer as a metaphor for the heartlessness of 80s Reaganite capitalism in “American Psycho” has there been such an in-your-face, rage-filled rant against the upper class.
The universe of the film is one where America in the near future has elected some sort of oligarchy known as the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA). Through a process not thoroughly laid out in either “Purge” film, though explored in an official site linked to the film (http://www.newfoundersamerica.org), a constitutional amendment is passed allowed that, for 12 hours on one night of the year, all crime is deemed legal, especially murder. The stated reason for this is to allow citizens to experience a catharsis, “release the beast”, thus allowing crime to be confined to this one night and allowing relative peace and prosperity for the rest of the year. Indeed, title cards tell us that unemployment and crime are taken to record lows, and the economy is booming after a fiscal crisis. Perhaps the unstated reason for this is to eliminate the poor, thus allowing for lesser strain on government programs allocated to help and, also, prosecute them? How much money would the government save if you could drastically cut any and all programs that exist as a social safety net for the poor, sick, and needy? How much would you save if you didn’t have to funnel money to law enforcement to arrest, try, and jail poor people who commit crimes associated with the poor (drugs and crimes committed to pay for drugs, gang violence, etc?)
Whereas the first “Purge” film dealt with upper-middle to lower-rich classes, living a nice neighborhood where no one seems to go out and purge (as a verb) themselves (a commentary about how, when the poor riot, they never target rich communities?), the sequel takes us to the middle of the city, where the poor desperately barricade themselves with what little means they can muster, street hustlers offer last minutes sales on guns and protection, and some take the extreme route of selling themselves to be killed by the rich so that their surviving relatives have a chance to get out of squalor (a mixture of “Hostel” and a metaphor for how we all sell out by taking jobs that help make those higher on the economic latter a bit richer even though the harder work is done by the wage-laborer).
The new film gives us five protagonists: Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a waitress struggling to make ends meet. Cali (Zoe Soul, who cannot act) is her daughter who won’t shut up and whose job in the film is to ask questions which allow for exposition. Then we meet a couple of the verge of breaking up (Zach Gilford and Kylie Sanchez) who are driving home just before the Purge is about to commence (didn’t feel the need to leave earlier, guys?) when their car breaks down due to sabotage but masked gang members. Then we meet Leo (Frank Grillo), a man who has chosen to go out on Purge Night armed to the teeth in a souped up Mad Max-Death Race car to get revenge. Circumstances draw them together and the film mainly functions as a chase film of them running through dark streets and buildings (ala “Escape from New York”) as the city becomes a war zone.
Oh, and lest I forget, there is also a character named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) who posts internet videos where he explicitly states the things the film is saying: that people need to wake up, realize that the rich are exploiting and killing the poor to line their own pockets, and people need to rise up against them. This character is dressed up like a Black Panther or Che Guevara and sounds like a cross between Vladimir Lenin and me when I’m drunk or watching Fox news. This character, and his army of all-Black revolutionaries, brings to mind the jokes Bill Maher often makes about Conservatives being afraid of “Obama’s Negro Army”.
The film’s two main messages are about economic inequality and gun culture. On the former, it’s saying that the way our modern real-life America society runs, the rich are killing the poor in all but the most literal sense of the word. The film shows us the literal iteration of what the rich are financially and socially doing to the poor (and also what the poor does to the poor with the tacit endorsement of the rich). This message is right on the surface of the film and stated explicitly and repeatedly. It hammers you over the head as much as victims in this film are literally hammered over the head. Your tolerance for this will depend on how angry you are about economic inequality in the United States. Since I am a Socialist and very concerned, I watched the film with a gigantic smile on my face the whole way through.
The second concern is about gun culture, and this message is perhaps a bit mixed. While the film is very much against redneck gun lovers (numerous gun-toting characters yell about how owning a gun and/or shooting a gun is their God and/or government given right in increasingly hilarious ways) and gun fetishism (one character describes a gun in particularly phallic detail late into the film), and it clearly shows that guns are not adequate protection for a home invasion, and taking the law into your own hands is wrong…the film seemingly has no problem with guns for self-defense as a practical measure (everyone on the street is a potential enemy, so you should be armed to fight back…isn’t that the argument of concealed carry, even though it IS the phenomenon of concealed and open carry that causes people to feel like anyone could be a potential enemy. Perhaps this is a comment on how, like people wouldn’t need guns to protect themselves if guns were not first a threat, people wouldn’t need guns to protect themselves during the Purge if the Purge itself didn’t exist). The film also seems okay with violent rebellion against the rich. While Carmelo the resistance leader is shown to yell and look kind of crazy in the film, the things he says throughout the film are NOT crazy at all, making me view him as the mouthpiece of the writer/director. “The Purge: Anarchy” is not a film politely arguing for a democratic solution to economic inequality. After all, the New Founding Fathers of America were voted in democratically. The film is arguing that the rich be overthrown through revolutionary means. Not since “Fight Club” have I seen an American film so unapologetically Marxist in its ideology.
Of all the people we see murdered in the film (mostly via gun), the film presents all of the murders as either shocking, horrible, or neutrally as background to set up the world. That is, except, when it comes to the rich. In once scene, which also helpfully explains that no one tries to break into banks during the Purge because they move their money, we are treated to the site of a stock broker murdered and hung up over the door of a large bank, holding a sign which is both read aloud to us and shown on screen long enough for us to read ourselves, explaining that he was killed for stealing pensions. One of our protagonists says “maybe he deserved it” as the camera lingers on the victim before we cut to the next scene. Later on, we see other rich people, all dressed up in the attire Mitt Romney and his sons were nearly every time they give an interview these days, being shot to pieces in sequences clearly meant for us to cheer that, finally, someone we WANT to die, is.
Some may ask why the messages are so blatant and in your face. Some will want subtlety, nuance, a more creative metaphor. I have no such qualms. Political movies may be all over the place these days, from Michael Moore docs on the left, Dinesh D’Souza propaganda on the right, and stuff like “Dirty Wars” in the middle, but films like those exist an echo chamber where only those who already agree with those films’ views are sitting in the audience for them, and those who aren’t in the choir they’re preaching to are people already firmly against them who are there for an irony orgy. By putting your message on the surface (for those who are too lazy or stupid to read between the lines) in a genre that is popular across many different demographics (like horror) you reach an audience who otherwise wouldn’t care to listen to your Marxist rant. While a film like “the Purge: Anarchy” probably won’t sway anyone’s opinions on its own, it may slither upon unsuspecting audiences and at least spark discussions, whereas documentaries would immediately cause people to have their guard up.
Aside from the message of the film, many viewers of the first “Purge” had issues with the mythology of this world. If ALL crime is legal (except for some heavy explosives and the murder of high government officials) why is everyone so concerned with murder? While this sequel explains that breaking into banks, and presumably expensive stores, would be futile, couldn’t hackers steal money over the internet? The sequel, in discussing CCTV traffic cams, indicates that perhaps the internet is too heavily state controlled for this to happen, but it seems like someone would try. Then there are the questions which lead to ideas for fan fiction: What if you merely assaulted someone you knew but didn’t kill them, then after the Purge ends they have to be all hunky-dory with you for another 364 days? What about acquaintance rape? A storyline in which someone rapes someone legally during the Purge and then can’t be prosecuted later, leaving the victim scarred and with no recourse, would be an excellent socially commentary on the string of campus rapes making the news. I’m sure you guys and girls can think of a billion different stories for this universe, which is one quality of it that endears this series to me, and makes me hope for either more sequels or prequels or side-quels, or perhaps a licensed series of novel spin-offs exploring all of the different ways people would exploit 12 hours of carte blanche.
Of course, there are also holes in logic. For instance, why does no one just leave the country for the Purge? I assume they don’t because the films makes a point about how the Purge is very Patriotic (people put out a special flower in front of their house to show support for it) and, much like the people who didn’t fly the American flag or express extreme love of country after 9/11, someone who left the country for the Purge would be forever a pariah in their community and labeled un-American or a traitor. So putting aside questions that could be feasibly explained with the logic the film provides us and a dollop of our own knowledge of America…what happens to people stick in the Hospital during the Purge? Mental hospitals? Prisons? What is someone is killed one minute after the Purge ends? You can’t pinpoint time of death accurately to within a minute. What if you fire a gun a second before the Purge ends, but it doesn’t hit the person until the claxon signally the end of the Purge? Does the beginning of the act or the completion of the act count as when the act is said to have occurred? How much these holes or unexplained aspects of the film bother you will vary. Me? I didn’t mind much. The film takes place in a heightened satirical universe and seems to play fair based on the rules the film (now films) give us.
Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Despite the absence of the invaluable Ethan Hawke this time around, this sequel is actually a better film than the original, thanks to eliminating superfluous subplots, focusing more on the poor, trading the trapped-in-one-location horror set-up for a chase set-up (or, in John Carpenter-ese, trading “Assault on Precinct 13” for “Escape from New York” or “Escape from LA”), and expanding on the world created in the first one. We’re still in b-movie territory here, but for this one, it earns the highest of Bs. B+