Purge and Purify: Looking Back on ‘The Purge: Anarchy’

Although the first Purge movie (not to be confused by the latest franchise installment, The First Purge (2018)) was ultimately a bad movie with a great premise, based on its bankable premise, low budget and savvy distribution, it turned an insane profit by the time in left theaters.  It made back nearly thirty times its paltry $3 million budget, edging very near the outright blockbuster status, guaranteeing that a sequel was hot on its heels no matter what.

And while a quick cash-grab would have undoubtedly done about as well as the first movie (giving the filmmakers very little actual incentive to innovate what was evidently a winning formula from the word “go”), the filmmakers — particularly writer-director James DeMonaco — took the core criticisms directed toward the first movie to heart and remade the sequel from the ground up to address them.  They scaled up the action from a low-rent home invasion story, pumped more money into the action set-pieces, leaned into the obvious political allegory of the premise and took the narrative out of the milquetoast suburbs, instead placing it in the colorful inner-city (with a range of inter-connected stories that was just as diverse as the cast of characters that they’re about).

They took what could have otherwise been a pretty safe sequel to a pretty profitable movie and made it into a retread of that bog-standard story and made it into something radical.  The easily marketable white upper-middle class family was replaced with a largely minority class.  The plot, in its entirety, pretty much scrapped everything except for the basic idea of the Annual Purge night itself.  The genre was switched from straight horror to the much harder to market action-horror hybrid.  It nearly tripled its budget while maintaining its R-rating (meaning that its potential returns were far less than the average mainstream horror movie).  And by doubling down on its political subtext (now simply the front-facing text of the franchise), it risked maligning a significant portion of the first movie’s audience.

And I wasn’t kidding about just how scaled up everything — especially the narrative — is compared to the first movie.  Whereas the first Purge (no, still not that First Purge) was basically just a locked-room thriller with one well-to-do family’s under-the-surface tensions inviting outside violence into their otherwise sheltered lives, The Purge: Anarchy (2014) blows an entire franchises worth of ideas on the increasingly minor sub-plots of this one movie (which even back then was intended to be an expansion on the franchise rather than some kind of final chapter).

It starts out with Sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) as a vindictive, Punisher-esque vigilante who spends his night purging the everyday slashers that take to the streets to exercise their right to kill anybody who crosses their path, which by the final scenes has evolved into his personal vendetta against the man who killed his son.  Elsewhere a young couple (Zack Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) is caught outside during the “festivities” when a gang cuts their fuel before the festivities even begin.  Still elsewhere an old patriarch of an impoverished family (John Beasley) sells himself to wealthy purgers who both want to participate in the holiday while simultaneously staying off of the dangerous streets, whose surviving family (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) desperately takes to the streets to find him.  Other subplots include an armed, anti-Purge resistance trying to change the narrative of the annual slaughter, government-sponsored death squads roaming the streets to kill minorities in even greater numbers and grotesque auction houses that sell off human sacrifices to the highest bidder.

This is enough material for a dozen movies at least — all of which could be revisited and expanded upon in sequels beyond that — all thrown in together during the same 90+ minute stretch of time.  It’s crowded and chaotic, but every plot gets time and weight enough to earn its place in the proceedings and every story eventually connects with the others, making their inclusion ultimately feel worth it.  The vignettes are all interesting and rife with righteous, politically-charged anger, the characters are all individually interesting and the entire film feels like a proof-of-concept for all of the Purge movies that they could potentially make in the future (something born out recently, with both Election Year and The First Purge expanding on some of this film’s best-received subplots).

Every story is quick and different enough to keep the whole proceeding running smoothly and the horrific set-pieces, when set-up, are all executed with ghastly efficiency.  The purgers’ masks, which were merely unsettling the first time around, become as integral to the film as any of the stories themselves (a facet that only grew more prevalent in its 2016 follow-up).  Particular standouts include Dìa de los Muertos-esque skeletal face paint and a blank white mask that merely espouses “God” (perhaps a little on the nose, but fittingly unsettling).

Anarchy is the kind of upscaling sequel that everybody wants but we rarely ever get: bigger, better and more memorable than the middling horror flick that preceded it.  Although its ambitions nearly sink the entire enterprise, due to the filmmakers’ open minds to the first’s criticisms, they were able to discover the core of what made this franchise special (even in its least memorable first outing).  The stories are interesting, the characters great and it is genuinely impressive to see just how far the still bare-bones budget could be stretched without breaking.  Whereas the first was nothing special, starting with Anarchy, the series becomes an absolute must-see.

Rating:  3/5

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