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The Purge: Anarchy Is a Slasher Movie With Society As the Killer

If you’ll recall, the original Purge took an enticingly twisted premise and fashioned a Twilight Zone–inflected home-invasion thriller around it. The futuristic idea behind the “purge” itself — for one 12-hour period every year, all crime is legal, and cops and hospitals can’t help you — was mostly just setup: The real drama lay in watching what happened when one safe, secure, prosperous family dared to shelter a lowly refugee fleeing from others of their ilk. It was internecine bourgeois warfare, with only brief glimpses of the have-nots slaughtering each other in the streets.

Apparently, something stuck in writer-director James DeMonaco’s craw from that earlier movie, because he goes wonderfully ambitious and wild with The Purge: Anarchy. Now he takes us out of the gated communities of the earlier film and into those streets, where the Purge is really supposed to be taking place. The opening crawl informs us that ever since the New Founding Fathers instituted this tradition, “fewer and fewer people live below the poverty line.” However, the ranks of the poor are declining not because they’re moving up in the world, but because they’re killing each other in the streets. Turns out the Purge is about more than unleashing one’s id; it’s a proto-Malthusian wet dream, a way to control population and cull the ranks of the dispossessed.

The new story pulls in three different sets of individuals: a mysterious man (the great Frank Grillo) who has armed himself for what is clearly some sort of revenge killing, a bickering couple whose car has broken down (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez), and a working-class mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) who’ve been assaulted in their home. Together they make their way through a world in which every form of social dysfunction has been weaponized: Drunken louts look to rape and kill the women who’ve ignored them; the powerful select victims for their own private purges; good old boys crack open beers as they perch behind their sniper rifles; mercenaries harvest victims for others. There are murderous domestic disputes, trucks full of masked and drugged-out loons, revolutionaries, and one crazy lady on a bridge who yells that she’s doing both the Lord’s work and her patriotic duty: “I am the right arm of the free world and the left hand of God!” she yells, brandishing her weapons. The Purge: Anarchy is basically a slasher movie in which society is the deranged killer. It plays like it’s already a grindhouse classic — dark, dirty, and disreputable.

I had reservations about this concept being expanded and interrogated. It didn't seem like it could bear much scrutiny. The idea is still full of holes (though a couple of my earlier questions, such as what happens to banks on Purge Night, are sort of answered), but this time, DeMonaco turns his film into a perverse riff on class and power in America. He’s not subtle about it, either. An early scene shows a well-heeled family praying and then declaring, “Blessed be America, a nation reborn,” before picking up their machetes to hack away at an old, sick, African-American man. And things get less nuanced from there. By the time a society matron discusses the glories of a Mauser the way she might describe a fine wine (“It has a delicate trigger and smooth discharge”), you may find yourself chuckling along at the grotesque insanity. It’s okay to laugh along: DeMonaco wrote the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, and one can sense more than a little John Carpenter influence in the way he mixes satire and horror, old-school heroics with dystopian grime.

The Purge: Anarchy is a genuinely angry movie. When the good guys are yelling things like, “Get ready to bleed, rich bitches!” you know you’ve gone through the looking glass. Of course, it's silly to pretend that there isn't a load of hypocrisy at the heart of such rabble-rousing entertainment: If there were an actual war on the rich, Hollywood itself would be reduced to a pile of ash within seconds. But it's also breathtaking to watch a throwaway studio sequel break its corporate chains before your very eyes and become something thrilling and dangerous and alive.

Photo: Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures