James DeMonaco's The Purge: Anarchy has a high concept, and it is in over its head. The film is set in 2023, picking up one year after the events of last year's highly profitable The Purge ($89 million global gross, versus a $3 million budget), which DeMonaco also wrote and directed. As that flick did, Anarchy is set during a government-sanctioned annual event in which violence is legal and emergency responses are shut down between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The last movie focused on an affluent family sequestered in their house, whose security system was no match for hungry Purgers. This one focuses on people too poor (or otherwise unfortunate) to be protected very much at all. The faces have changed, but the hassles are just the same—namely, the hassle of possibly being gunned down by a random guy shooting an M60 out of the back of a truck.
The theory behind the Purge (and, apparently, its movies) is that 12 hours of cathartic mayhem will tide people over for the remaining 364.5 days of the year. Violent tendencies are something you can turn on and off like a faucet. The result is a peaceful society with an unemployment rate that is less than 5 percent. If the so-called New Founding Fathers who established the Purge in 2017 looked into the way they run things in Longyearbyen, Norway, they'd see even more impressive statistics. But then that purge would be of homeless people, and that movie to many would read to many more like fantasy than horror.
Even a dumb horror movie needs a sharp premise, and that of The Purge seems no less reasonable than a serial killer who stalks you through your nightmares or a VHS tape whose contents are fatal. The problem with The Purge films is that they are pretentious, operating under the assumption that they have something coherent to say about race and economics, something that wasn't already said by better movies that came before like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Eli Roth's Hostel. Something that isn't already obvious. Something that didn't feel like the product of reading a thumbnail sketch of CliffsNotes on Herbert Spencer.
The Purge: Anarchy is a movie that imagines people would so slavishly follow the rules of government-sanctioned violence that they would put down their guns during a standoff when the bells sound to announce the end of the Purge. Pay no attention to that adrenalin behind your amorality, people. The government says so. Even worse, when a survivor of said standoff makes his way to the hospital the morning after the Purge, it appears to be empty, as though there wouldn't be throngs of maimed people and piles of dead bodies from the mass carnage that just occurred.
The idea that a year's violent impulses could be compressed to 12 hours is foolish, but The Purge: Anarchy seems to believe it. There is no sense of a bigger picture here—that violence begets more violence, that human beings might not be patient enough to sit on their hands for a year to exact revenge for whatever indignities they believe they have suffered, that a night of mass carnage would create societal effects that would ripple out for months after, if not years. There's just an empty hospital parking lot, like a head without brains, like a movie without a fully conceived premise.
The world of The Purge: Anarchy is divided into two halves: those who Purge and those who wait it out, hoping to be spared. Few question the way of life that was imposed on them just six years before. There are no shelters for those who can't afford proper security, there's no seeming social movement in response to the Purge. The Purge: Anarchy introduces a YouTube revolutionary named Carmelo, apparently one of the few human beings left on Earth who can distinguish between the law and morality. Except...no, he can't. His ultimate way of fighting the Purge is to Purge. "Get ready to bleed, rich bitches," he announces before fighting gunfire with gunfire.
Rich people indulge in the Purge by purchasing the poor (sometimes via other poor people) to ceremoniously murder or make a game of hunting. The latter scenario gives us the movie's most memorable scene, in which a pack of wandering anti-Purgers are captured and auctioned by an old woman with silver hair, pearls, and a blue gown. It's dollar-store David Lynch. The resulting hunt is porno-parody Hunger Games without the naughty bits.
The Purge: Anarchy is too plodding to be scary. It's both overly pessimistic (people are sheep who will do exactly what the government says) and overly optimistic (once the Purge is over, everything goes back to normal, or in fact, better than normal). Its only good use, I think, is providing a scenario in which it would make sense for civilians to arm themselves with automatic weaponry. It's too bad it doesn't give them more meaningful things to do with it.