The Purge was released one year ago while the country was still feeling the effects of the recession more acutely and its premise tapped into class tensions that have pervaded the country for years.
The title refers to one twelve-hour period each year during which all law and order are suspended, an annual ritual established by the New Founding Fathers of America. Americans are free to kill each other with no consequences. The weaker members of society are purged, thus reducing unemployment, the prison population, and the crime rate for the rest of the year.
The Purge did a fine job of establishing this provocative scenario, but then it backed away from the very sentiments on which it was based and devolved into a formulaic home-invasion horror movie. Once it set up all of its hot-button ideas, it shied away from them.
The Purge: Anarchy, however, pulls no punches. In many ways, this is the film The Purge should have been.
The story is stronger and less formulaic, and the social commentary is more forceful, memorable, and coherent. Despite some confounding stylistic choices (I could rant for paragraphs about the nonsensical use of a mirror shot during one scene alone), Anarchy improves over the original in numerous ways.
This sequel follows a new set of characters. There is a vengeful, well-armed father (Frank Grillo), a working-class mother (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zöe Soul), and a yuppie couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the verge of a break-up, all of whom find themselves on the streets on the one night when they shouldn’t be.
This setup allows the filmmakers to lead us through the city and to explore the types of people who participate in the purge, and that’s when the film goes after its social and political targets.
Some characters in The Purge: Anarchy have twisted Christianity to a point where worship of the government is synonymous with worship of God, and the lethal use of firearms is theologically acceptable.
Others use the purge to target the opposite gender. The first act of violence shows a man attacking his female neighbor merely because she ignores him and rejects his advances. The scene brings to mind the ongoing discourse about male sexual entitlement and rape culture.
More generally, characters who would otherwise be regarded as normal take part in the purge. The horror genre has progressed to a point where humans have taken the place of monsters who embody our darker sides. The Purge: Anarchy pushes that idea to the point where this is barely a horror movie at all.
Sure, there are some gotcha moments, but there are really only two scary things about the movie. As with The Purge, the most frightening aspect is the degree of plausibility in the concept. The scenario is absurd, but not completely. It taps into some real phenomena and beliefs apparent in contemporary American society.
The other chilling element is the possibility that some people will watch this in the same way they would watch any horror movie. Echoing the premise of this very franchise, horror movies can be cathartic, and it is totally acceptable to respond to onscreen violence in a horror movie with excitement.
To react to the The Purge: Anarchy with any kind of delight, however, is to miss the whole point. That some viewers will not make that distinction is perhaps the most terrifying thing about the film.