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Why “The Purge” Movies Have A Fantastic Premise And Terrible Execution

The Purge: Anarchy offers just enough of a glimpse of a wider, disturbing universe to make us wish it weren’t so focused on folks trying to kill each other.

Keith Stanfield in The Purge: Anarchy. Universal Pictures

It’s been a summer peppered with class turmoil at the movies, from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Snowpiercer to Tammy, and never more so than in The Purge franchise, which rolled out its second installment, The Purge: Anarchy, last weekend. The Purge series is fueled by bloodshed that’s in turn fueled by class rage, imagining a near-future U.S. in which crime and unemployment are at record lows — courtesy of the introduction of a national holiday in which, for 12 hours, everything’s legal and the police and emergency services close up shop.

The Purge-indoctrinated Americans dutifully repeat the message from the New Founding Fathers, the ominous regime that’s reshaped the country. Purging, they say, is their right and their way to “release the beast” and expel negative emotions from the law-abiding rest of the year. But the reality is that The Purge is a way for the government to cull low-income populations who can’t afford to seal themselves away.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

 

It’s a corker of a premise that speaks not only to our age of increasingly urgent yet dismissed income inequality, but also to that brand of unfocused aggression Americans have showcased so well in doing things like forming volunteer militias to patrol the border and bringing guns into stores and restaurants because they can. It’s not hard to buy that there’s a portion of the population that would really love an excuse to kill someone, and would take to it even more eagerly if it were cast as patriotic and righteous.

There are a lot of eager do-badders in The Purge: Anarchy, from ghoulish aristocrats to mercenary kidnappers to chest-thumping macho types to guys exacting ugly revenge on the women who turned them down, but the most efficiently resonant image is that of a husky dude on a rooftop cracking a beer and settling down behind his sniper rifle with an air of “finally!”

Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul in The Purge: Anarchy. Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

The Purge movies have the kind of foundation you could see underlying a ’70s sci-fi movie, but they’re horror, and while Anarchy is a significant step up from the first film, it feels even more like it’s bumping up against the boundaries of its genre. The horror aspects are the least interesting part of the Purge films, which started in the ritzy suburbs in which Ethan Hawke and his family were holed up, then moved on to downtown Los Angeles and a new set of characters who find themselves out in the very dangerous streets after dark. Outside of the fascinating set-up, they’re often the kind of movies in which you root for characters to be killed off because they’re so annoying, or do such stupid things, or act like this horrific holiday that’s apparently been going on for nine years was just invented.

The Purge: Anarchy is peopled with a yuppie couple (real-life husband and wife Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) who act shockingly unconcerned with how late they are in getting to safety until disaster strikes; a working class mother and daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul) who are rescued by a man but then start needlessly harping on him (“You’re being an asshole”); and then one guy who’s out there intentionally (Frank Grillo). Save for Grillo’s sergeant character (and he’s a would-be murderer!), they’re not much of a group to cheer on, and writer/director James DeMonaco’s writing is far more effective with bald satire than with dialogue. These five barely resemble types, much less actual people.

Frank Grillo in The Purge: Anarchy. Universal Pictures

While The Purge: Anarchy is freed up from the standard home invasion hijinks of the first film, which often made it feel like a knockoff of The Strangers, it still spends a lot of time on murky firefights on the street, underground, and in some kind of private hunting compound. But the movie’s most memorable moments have little to do with action — they’re the smaller and more specific touches, like the homeless people hoping to ride out the night in the subway tunnels, or the last-minute market of people hawking weapons on the street before 7 p.m., or the fact that the banks move their money away before Purge night. There’s no shortage of interesting ideas in Anarchy, it just doesn’t care to explore them.

There are a billion holes that can be poked in The Purge’s premise, but the biggest is related to its chosen genre — if all crime is legal during The Purge, why does everyone go straight to murder? Well, because the movies think that’s the most fun to watch, which makes the occasional sanctimony about how awful and needless violence is a little hard to take. Even with government encouragement, killing wouldn’t be the first impulse of most people ready to take advantage of lawlessness (a point just barely glanced on in Anarchy) — whatever happened to good old-fashioned looting, the traditional outcome of law enforcement temporarily falling away?

Kiele Sanchez and Zach Gilford in The Purge: Anarchy. Justin Lubin/Universal Pictures

It’s those questions that are the most promising aspect of The Purge series, but investigating them would require stepping away from the format of characters running around trying not to get killed. What happens the day after, with bodies littering the streets and hospitals overflowing? What about all the other types of crime that are apparently being committed off screen? What if people don’t stop right at 7 p.m.? How do people go back to normal around neighbors or friends or co-workers who’ve tried to kill them or their family? What about the random property destruction that would seem a possibly more satisfying means of getting one’s rage out than butchery? Or, hell, what about the sicker possibilities, the people with far most specialized illegal tendencies who’ve been waiting on their annual day of freedom to practice them?

There’s, admittedly, little motivation for The Purge series to change its thus far successful formula of slaughter and bludgeoning social commentary on a low (for Hollywood) budget, but the films keep offering tantalizing slices of what could be, were they to depart further from the narrow viewpoint they’ve held to so far. They’ve shown a sense of humor, and a genuine sense of anger. If only these films were able to expand their scope from a focus on folks with guns to a broader look on what it would really mean if, for one night, the rules were suspended.

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