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The Purge: Anarchy is a messy, confounding, and thoroughly thought-provoking piece of political pop art. Four days after seeing it, I’m still trying to figure it out: Is the film a radical call for a proletarian revolution disguised as pulp, or just a vulgar B-movie appealing to its audience’s lowest common denominator?
The fact that it could be considered the former makes it hard to completely dismiss, but the way it conforms to the tropes of the latter makes it impossible to endorse.
For the uninitiated, the Purge movies take place in a dystopian near-future in which the federal government allows its citizens one night a year in which all crime is legal. The first film, a surprise hit last summer, mostly wasted its concept on a tired “home invasion” thriller. Still, the issues of class warfare and income inequality lurked in the background; the villains were a crew of preppy, young murderers who were “purging” themselves by killing a homeless man, only to turn their attention towards a wealthy family who tried to protect him.
To its credit, the sequel at least gets us out of the house this time. In the first few minutes, we are introduced to a neatly diverse group of protagonists: a white middle-class couple, a black single mom and her teenage daughter, and a mysterious loner. Each gets caught outside after sundown and must escape the roving gangs of psychopaths looking for any excuse to shed blood.
While the film has been marketed as a straight horror flick, The Purge: Anarchy puts the political themes only hinted at in the first film front and center. The mysterious trucks that roam the city streets, killing poor folk en masse? Our heroes get a look inside and find surveillance capabilities that suggest a mobile NSA unit. There is the black-tie country club crowd that holds what amounts to a slave auction for the rights to kill a particular set of poor people. And then there’s the black-power group lurking on the edges of the film, led by a Malcolm X-type figure named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams). They’re calling for an armed revolution against the government, arguing that the feds are using the Purge to thin out the number of poor, taxpayer-assisted citizens.
There was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been a radical act to put these subversive ideas in a Hollywood film, but after The Hunger Games and the recent Snowpiercer, the politics of The Purge: Anarchy feel more like a marketing scheme to lend an air of respectability to the violence on which Hollywood has always thrived. More importantly, the way that writer/director James DeMonaco weaves his political rhetoric into such a cheap, exploitative series of bloody set pieces seems downright dangerous. The Purge: Anarchy may be the only film in history to use a race-based revolution as a deus ex machina. “Change only comes when their blood spills,” Carmelo says as he blows away a cadre of rich white folks. Well, maybe.
Of course, The Purge: Anarchy is not a film interested in the nuances of democracy, and we should not ask it to be. Its aim is simple catharsis, which is itself a potent political tool. In the end, it hardly resembles a horror film at all, instead landing somewhere closer to a working-class revenge fantasy. It’s easy to agree with its populist sentiments, but when you hear your fellow moviegoers cheer in the climactic scenes when the one-percenters get a vicious taste of their own medicine, you might feel a chill go up your spine as you get a snapshot of what happens when the oppressed become violent oppressors.