Note: this review will be featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Purge: Anarchy is either one of the most absurd, fascist films ever made or a vapid, gruesome piece of filmmaking. I think it’s the latter, but the filmmakers certainly make an argument for the former. What we are given is a sequel to a film that squandered its seemingly ingenious premise surrounding a futuristic America: that for 12 hours each year, every crime is legal (including murder). This allows for the country to prosper economically, socially, and financially. Except for the poor, of course, who are the targets of these purges headed by the wealthy aiming to create some sort of population control. This latest feature in the twisted world of the Purge focuses on multiple arcs: a couple (Zach GIlford and Kiele Sanchez) driving home as their car breaks down right before the Purge commences; a former sergeant (Frank Grillo) who aims to get revenge on the man who killed his son; and a mother (Carmen Ejogo) and daughter (Zoë Soul) who wait in their locked-up apartment as assailants break into their complex. The mother and daughter are working class, their father is dying, and they are struggling to survive in many ways.
All of their stories intersect. Not naturally, but because the story demands it and doesn’t care to explain how a city as big as Los Angeles can allow for all of these people to cross paths so neatly. The biggest problem? These characters, however engaging they sound on paper, are pointless. The story wants to explore the depravity of Americans, using these humanoid-like protagonists as a means of looking at the way we would act if given the ability to senselessly kill without punishment. That involves a man mowing down people with a mini-gun mounted in the back of a semi-truck and rich people paying exorbitant sums of money to hunt individuals or kill them with machetes. There’s a really strange obsession with murder by big knife here. The characters encounter many of these violent moments, meaning they should add up to a big revelation, either developing the central protagonists or providing the audience with a new idea about this world. But that seems a bit too logical.
The film is one of those rare breeds that consistently tells the audience that it’s making commentary on issues when in reality it’s all smoke and mirrors. Writer-director James DeMonaco took authorial duties in the first film and this latest feature, but there’s nothing that signifies a singular vision here. The direction is muddled and inconsistent in its jumps from naturalistic close-ups to haphazard action shots. The sound in the theater had substantial problems for most of the film’s opening moments, but that couldn’t disguise the discordant exchanges of dialogue between every character. It’s clunky and formulaic without a care for deepening characters or letting the audience learn from visualization. Instead, everything must be explained! The filmmakers working here, including mega-producer Jason Blum (famous for the Paranormal Activity films, amongst many other horror films of late), have created a product that delivers lowest-common denominator storytelling, deriving elements from insanity and incomprehension rather than development.
There’s something to be said about the manner in which homelessness, poverty, and government control are treated in The Purge: Anarchy, if only to demonstrate the failed attempts at mixing commentary and satire. I admire a major film that attempts to articulate something about societal issues. Yet the film demonstrates that America is full of have and have nots and that the haves are grotesque pigs while the have nots are lost causes. The main character of the sergeant, played by the competent Frank Grillo (who really tries his best with terrible material), gets redemption when realizing that participating in the Purge is part of the problem, but none of that is shown on screen. That’s storytelling 101. And Michael K. Williams pops up as Carmelo Jones, an enlightened extremist that aims to stand against the NFFA (New Founding Fathers of America). He’s ridiculous. Which makes me think that maybe the film is merely here to act as a spoof of social commentary itself and satirize the very nature of the narrative. And then, as the credit sequence rolls, a dubstep remix of “God Bless America” begins. How poetic.
Grade: ★½ (out of 5)