In 2013, director James DeMonaco introduced audiences to The Purge– a story where, for one night each year, citizens murder each other without reprimand. This parallel future added fresh angles for fears of home invasion, suburban dystopia, and the psychological thriller. Despite an intriguing premise, DeMonaco’s film fell flat in terms of plot and character development. The film thrived on its claustrophobia, but still took place inside the home. For the sequel, DeMonaco takes audiences away from the home and places them on the streets with the bulk of the atrocities. The Purge: Anarchy follows a group of people who find themselves stranded outside during the night of the Annual Purge. Hope for survival rests in the hands of a mysterious vigilante (Frank Grillo) to get them through the 12-hour killing spree. DeMonaco improves upon the plot and character weaknesses from his previous film to increase a sense of realism. The film offers decent terror, but ultimately falls flat when it cannot sustain its blatant message of exposing hypocrisy through racial and social disparity.
DeMonaco tackles the weaknesses of the previous film by introducing a cast of characters that exhibit ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic diversity. Audiences watch them make their preparations for the Annual Purge, ranging from boarding up windows to filling up ammunition in a library of firearms. Dialogue in the first third of the film is reminiscent of how zombie films expose character, particularly in films like Dawn of the Dead and 28 Days Later. Singular lines of dialogue speak volumes for these characters; audiences know just enough to understand their motivations. Defined characterization allows DeMonaco to maintain the swift pace of the film. The sheer amount of characters tends to highlight some of the weaker characters, but the strong characters such as the vigilante or Cali (Zoë Soul) break from the mold to keep audiences invested in the film.
Having a cast of lead chararcters establishes a relatable quality not seen in the previous film. As much as audiences wanted to be Ethan Hawke’s character from the first film—rich enough to afford a state-of-the-art defense system—the reality of Anarchy is that not everyone is Ethan Hawke. We are Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo), hiding in the closet of a vulnerable apartment. We are Liz (Kiele Sanchez), driven to murder through extraordinary circumstances. We may be the thousands of stranded or homeless, simply out on the wrong night. The success of Anarchy depends on the realism factor; if audiences cannot empathize with the characters on screen, the film loses the critical realistic element that makes a horror film worth watching.
To improve the plot, DeMonaco takes his audiences to the streets where most of the citizens conduct their Purge. With the previous film, it was one family against one band of Purgers. Here, the villainous groups multiply in both number and form, ranging from bands of masked murders to wealthy people bidding on people to hunt in a makeshift obstacle course. Some of these groups border on the ridiculous, such as the flock of trucks stocked with AK-47s on sniper mounts, but it can be forgiven due to the action-driven nature of the film. On the streets, danger is constant and unrelenting. Audiences never find a moment of comfort, reducing their mental state to that of the frazzled characters.
Sadly, blatant references to class and racial tensions bring down the emotional draw of the film. DeMonaco saturates the film with overt patriotic references, from the title of “new founding fathers” to a reinterpretation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Patriotism is then tied to the crippling social disparity that, according to the film, inspires the creation of the Annual Purge, a connection that DeMonaco cannot help but exploit. No real analysis lies behind these connections; at times, DeMonaco appears more focused in showing these connections rather than forcing audiences to think about these themes. The worst offender is a scene in which the main characters are forced into a theater where aristocrats bid on who gets to kill them. A long shot rests on Eva, a Hispanic woman, demonstrating DeMonaco beating audiences over the head with the allusion to slaves on the auction block. The scene was meant to place audiences in a state of discomfort, but instead they fight rolling their eyes. DeMonaco battles real themes plaguing American society, but he crams these themes in his film without rhyme or reason. Couple that with the repetitive dialogue narrating the previous action, and a decent premise quickly fizzles.
DeMonaco improved upon the failures of the first film, only to have new weaknesses arise.
See the film for ninety minutes of decent action with occasional thrilling moments of tension. Just be skeptical of the promise of any poignant critique of American society, because it is all at face value.