Whenever I’m playing through a video game and it suddenly forces me to engage in an escort mission, bringing a character I can’t control from point A to point B and keeping them alive, I will groan and slog my way through it. The Purge: Anarchy is a video game escort mission as a feature length film. I have not seen the first Purge film but was told it was unnecessary viewing and that this second film would fill me in. That was true, they deliver a lot of first act exposition to explain what is going on.
The film tells the story of the night of the sixth Purge. The Purge is an annual event instituted by an upstart extreme Libertarian political party as a way to help people release their rage. For twelve hours, all crimes are legal and the use of most weapons in committing these crimes is permitted. In Anarchy, we have an unnamed man (Frank Grillo) embarking on a mission of revenge. On his way, he makes the decision to help out a mother and her daughter and his Purge night takes an extreme divergence from his plans. A couple more characters join up with the group and they make their way across Los Angeles trying to survive the slaughter and mayhem around them.
It was probably not a good idea to make this my very next film after Green Room because the former definitely highlights the huge problems with the latter. Read my review of Green Room here. The Purge: Anarchy has five protagonists and none of them die until the last 15 minutes of the film and then it is only one. If the goal of the film is to make me feel that the event is the most dangerous and insane thing I could go through then it fails big time. Green Room kills off the most well prepared and confident character in a snap of your fingers. Here we have Frank Grillo essentially playing The Punisher and making it to the end and, spoiler, he’s the main protagonist of the third one currently in theaters. The film undercuts any sense of true fatality by keeping its main character alive the entire film.
Then we get to the metaphor of the film, and by god, it’s pretty hard to miss because they have shaped it in the form of a Mack truck. When I was in college, I stumbled across the film Mississippi Burning about the murder of three civil rights activists and directed by Alan Parker. I was astonished at how on the nose and disingenuous the message of the film felt. They kept beating you over the head with “Racism is bad”. Yes, I know that. But what interesting avenues in regards to racism do you plan to explore? Oh, none. Ok. Then why make this movie? But at least Parker’s film had a cogent message. I can’t tell you what Purge: Anarchy was attempting to say about anything. I suspect writer/director James DeMonaco is a little confused himself.
The first guess you might have is a message about Americans and their addiction to guns and the violence in our culture. Well, we have an allegedly anti-Purge group led by Carmelo (the always awesome Anthony K. Williams) telling us that the Purge concentrates its violence on the poor and minorities. Okay, a little on the nose, but let’s go with it. However, in the third act Carmelo and his group show up at a warehouse where One Percenters are hunting people down and state “It’s our time to Purge”. And the film portrays this as good and justified. I don’t think messages can get more mixed than that. They’re moments where we find young black men rounding up people from their own communities and selling them to the rich. We have two battling sisters who end up spilling blood over their shared love, one of the sister’s husbands. There’s a dude in an American flag baseball cap traveling around in a semi-truck with a personal army and mowing people down with a minigun. But the film never manages to compose a semi-cohesive point about any single thing it brings up. They’re bits of fictional media sprinkled throughout that build up the world but I never saw an underlying statement to any of it.
Even without a coherent thesis, the film could have done something stylistically interesting. The cinematography is sloppy and derivative. The pacing is dull and it becomes a movie where you are checking the time to see how much is left. If they had gone the route of Pulp Fiction-esque anthology that could have been interesting, playing with time and narrative order. They could have had the main character in one story as mere cameos in another. There were some points where we could have delved deeper into the racial impacts of the Purge but the film never has the guts to. I think having a late 40s white male director is going to keep the film from exploring those elements in any interesting way. I thought of a very different film, Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1990), that wanted to say something about race relations and came off as one the most insultingly dumb movies I’ve ever seen. This is sort of like Grand Canyon but with more guns, and even then I never felt the flinching and queasy sense of danger I got from Green Room.
The only moment in the film that got me truly interested were the final moments between Grillo and his target. There could have been some amazing themes explored there, some really complex and challenging performances. But then it just whimpers out and we cut away. The resolution is implied but I frankly would have rather seen a one room film set on the night of The Purge about Grillo and his target. Explore how people use the Purge to enact revenge and explore the psychological effects on those who do purge. The film just ends up being less than the sum of its parts. It didn’t make me interested in watching the newest film. Even looking at it as an ultra-violent escapist film you have to note it took the whole movie for even one of the five main characters to die! It just feels like a very surface level dip into sociology that other films have explored in more interesting ways.