Monday, 2 July 2018

The Purge: Anarchy (James DeMonaco, 2014)

Around Los Angeles, people are preparing themselves for the annual Purge. People either barricade themselves in their homes, or arm themselves to go out into the streets to work out whatever dark urges they have been keeping bottled up all year.

One of those people is a man called 'Sergeant' (Leo Barnes). His son was killed by a drunk driver, and he intends to take vengeance against the man who ruined his life.

Of course, since it is Purge Night hose plans are immediately de-railed when he runs into a small group of people stuck out on the street. Now this unwilling chaperone is in a race against time to get these people out of harm's way - and accomplish his mission - before the Purge comes to a close...

The Purge movies are one of the more fascinating horror franchises of recent times. The original made money, but was regarded as something of a creative misfire. The general consensus was that the filmmakers created a fascinating world, but then relegated this to being the backdrop of a generic home invasion thriller.

The sequels were able to build off of its success and expand upon the premise in more interesting ways. As the series continued, it feels like it began to find a sense of righteous anger which gave its sequels a sense of relevance the original lacked. Global events like Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have made the series feel like a bizzaro commentary on the state of the world.

The Purge movies have become my go-to horror franchise. I've spent years trying to get my head around the appeal of long-running franchises like Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, and now I finally have my own version of that.

And what is great about the franchise thus far is that each film has some unique feature to recommend it - the original is a home invasion thriller, Anarchy is a chase movie, and Election Year is a barely veiled screed against the inequalities of the American socio-political system.

With the release of The First Purge, I went back to have a look at the instalment which gave the franchise its legs - and my personal favourite of the franchise.

Man, this movie rocks. I liked it the first time I watched it, and it just gets better and better the more times I watch it. Between the first and third movies, Anarchy stands out as the qualitative high point of the franchise. Expanding upon the premise, the story is basically a chase thriller in which a small group of people have to navigate a post-apocalyptic environment.

The appeal of The Purge is how it taps into primal urges, particularly the desire for reciprocity against wrongs, minor and major. Over the course of The Purge: Anarchy we get a cross-section of different responses: a white-collar criminal crucified for his misdeeds; Rosa's (Carmen Ejogo) neighbour's attempt sexually assault her after she has previously turned him down; a woman shoots her sister for having an affair with her husband; and then there is 'Sergeant', real name Leo Barnes (Grillo), who is seeking natural justice after the justice system failed to punish the man who killed his son.

Leo's storyline is the heart of the movie, providing the core conflict that the premise demands: will Leo follow through on his plan - thereby legitimising the Purge - or not? It's a solid dramatic line, lifted by a terrifically terse performance from Frank Grillo. As the anti-hero Leo, his character sums up the primal appeal of this series.

Grillo has a great facility for gruff minimalism that evokes the great harasses of b-movies past, but with an emotional payoff that you would never get from Bronson, Marvin or Eastwood.

As the characters trying to keep Leo on the side of the angels, Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul play Eva and Cali, a single mother and daughter who Leo rescues from a squad of mysterious goons who are rounding up people for rich families to hunt in the controlled environments of their compounds. Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez play an estranged couple who Leo and the others stumble into - while they get a great entrance, they are the least interesting part of the film and feel the most like cannon fodder.

Together they are buffeted from one bizarre set piece to the next, as DeMonaco uses his expanded canvas to show the true depravity of this near-future apocalypse. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is watching these characters slowly figure out how to survive, with whatever humanity they have slowly whittled down as the odds get more and more insurmountable.

While it is the movie that really pays off the potential of the premise, The Purge: Anarchy also fills out and expands upon the series' politics, positioning the face of the resistance as non-white and poor - here embodied by Michael K. Williams as anti-Purge activist Carmelo Johns, who uses the Purge as an opportunity to ambush the rich white people running the show.

It is easy to compare The Purge films with the work fo John Carpenter - most obviously Escape from New York (with a dollop of They Live's commentary about an upper class preying on the poor). While it is not particularly smart or satirical, in its own way The Purge: Anarchy (and more so its sequel Election Year) has a rough grasp of the frustration and terrors of modern-day America. 

Following the election of 45, The Purge's radical politics feel even more timely, and the films feel weirdly necessary. With DeMonaco ceding directorial reins to African American filmmaker Gerard McMurray (Burning Sands) , for the latest entry, The First Purge, it feels like a natural evolution for a series that appears to be more invested in pursuing an overt political message. Pretty radical for a series of cheap thrillers featuring psychos in masks!

And for that, we have to thank The Purge: Anarchy. This movie proved that the franchise could work without a big star like Ethan Hawke, and as a series of self-contained stories linked solely by the concept. In this way, The Purge franchise can literally go anywhere it wants to. 

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