Anarchy in the USA

While the first Purge was a pleasurable if somewhat overripe piece of agitprop, The Purge: Anarchy succumbs to full-on rot.

The Purge was a sickly-sweet anticapitalist treat. A contemporary update of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” folded into the home-invasion genre, the film follows the efforts of the affluent Sandin family to keep alive on the night of a government-sanctioned slaughter.

It’s 2022, we’re told in the opening credits, and the traditionalist New Founding Fathers regime has solved pernicious social ills like unemployment, crime, and poverty by instituting an annual holiday known as “the Purge,” during which law enforcement is suspended for twelve hours, and citizens are free to expunge their baser desires through offing each other.

The annual melee has been credited with fixing society’s problems. Yet — as the radio and TV pundits that pepper the beginning of the film helpfully remind us — because a rigid class structure continues to exist in this dystopia, only those able to afford security benefit from such a service. The pressure-valve function of the Purge exists at the expense of society’s poorest and most vulnerable, who are summarily hunted down and executed for the satisfaction of the rich.

In The Purge, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is an embarrassing patriarch who has gotten rich through selling the very security systems that he and his wealthy neighbors employ to safeguard their homes and families during yearly Purges. On the evening of the Purge, he locks down his home with his nuclear family gathered. His young son, however, moved by the pleas of a bloodied black man pursued by a mob in the streets, opens the door to the stranger and a subsequent night of chaos.

Soon after this misstep, a gaggle of well-groomed white teenagers, wearing prep school uniforms and grinning plastic masks that eerily resemble their own faces, show up at the Sandins’ doorstep and demand that the family relinquish the stranger, whom they have been hunting. The Sandins are initially set to comply, but eventually their consciences win over, and they refuse to sacrifice their hostage, provoking the murderous teens to storm their home with shotguns and machetes in furious retribution.

While producer Jason Blum has denied that the film was meant to contain any overt political message, it’s difficult to read The Purge as anything other than a bludgeoning condemnation of economic inequality. The sweeping shots of the Sandins’ pristine pre-Purge gated community — full of mansions and shining luxury cars — and the enthusiasm with which Papa Sandin reassures his nervous son, “We can afford protection tonight!” on the eve of the assault are explicit enough, and even more campily underscored when the youths attacking the Sandin home scream, “We’re the haves!”

Though most reviewers scoffed at the heavy-handedness of the film’s treatment of these themes, a certain lack of subtlety hardly came as a surprise in the blood-spattered arena of horror movies.

But while the first Purge was a pleasurable if somewhat overripe piece of agitprop, The Purge: Anarchy succumbs to full-on rot. The strength of The Purge was its home-invasion scenario, which functioned as a powerful metonymy for the dissolution of the boundary between the “private household” and “external” socioeconomic forces. Anarchy, on the other hand, unfolds on the shadowy downtown streets of an urban metropolis.

The majority of the movie tracks the harrowing journey of a group of four non-purgers whom fate has forced onto the streets — a low-income Latina woman and her daughter, and a bourgeois white couple — plus a revenge-minded but compassionate ex-military man (Frank Grillo), who decides to shuttle the former group to safety on his way to murder the man who killed his son in a drunk driving accident.

Like its predecessor, Anarchy is woven through with bits of news commentary, lest the audience forget the political significance of the slaughter. This time the media shown includes a few short clips of Carmelo (Michael K. Williams), a bereted black radical who castigates the annual Purge as a “redistribution of wealth upwards” and calls for the armed resistance of the poor.

Satisfying as it may be to see the film locating the heart of the uprising with the disenfranchised black underclass rather than Frank Grillo’s white savior figure, the impact is blunted by the caricature that is Carmelo — who, at the climax of the movie’s corniness, shows up deus ex machina with his liberation army to save the five protagonists from imminent death.

Unsurprisingly, things dissolve into spectacular silliness shortly thereafter: the bourgeois white lady’s husband is shot, and she joins Carmelo’s army to avenge his death. Then, Frank Grillo finally makes it to the home of the man he’s out to kill, but is convinced at the last minute by his spunky young Latina charge that murder won’t make him feel better.

There are, to be sure, a few sly twists in the film. For example, the protagonists are initially pursued in the streets by a gang of menacing teens — youths of color wearing Juggalo-like face paint, as though straight out of a white upper-middle-class nightmare. It turns out the teens are hunting them not out of bloodlust, but rather, because they need money and can sell their prey as hostages to the rich, who participate in the yearly Purges by buying victims to comfortably kill in the safety of their mansions. And at the end of the film, we learn that the government has been actively accelerating the bloodshed because citizens have steadily failed to kill each other at the rate needed to maintain society’s equilibrium.

The indictment of the state as an engineer of social chaos, rather than an impartial body that simply chooses to look the other way for a night, imparts a winking new dimension to the film’s subtitle “Anarchy.”

Yet, despite its handful of promising moments, the film, at an hour and forty-four minutes, is about an hour too long. Anarchy fails as a horror movie precisely because it dwells obsessively on its own condemnation of capitalism rather than utilizing sharp or inventive scares to do the heavy lifting. Whereas the first Purge was able to connect economic inequality to racism, and make visible the damages of both through slasher-style terror, Anarchy is so eager to hammer home the idea of capitalism as economic warfare that it abandons the horror genre to instead become a war movie, complete with military personnel, big explosions, gunfire exchanges, and enemy capture.

As Peter Frase says in his review of Snowpiercer, “Socialists shouldn’t put up with half-assed imitations of popular genres, nor with political messages denuded of anything but the lowest common denominator.” Anarchy has the unfortunate distinction of achieving both.

Still, the movie may at least be a useful barometer for the ever-growing class unrest in the United States. I went to a matinee screening in a Times Square theater, among an audience of tourists, retirees, and New York teens. The crowd whooped and cheered when Carmelo’s squad gunned down a group of rich purgers, and maintained a comradely, respectful silence when one of the protagonists (annoying as he was) was killed in battle.

While some critics have suggested that taking pleasure in the fictional deaths of those who perpetrate economic inequality taps the same societal bloodlust that The Purge is meant to criticize, one of the strengths of the franchise is that it demonstrates the difference between violence wrought by the ruling class and forceful resistance to the former.

If a mainstream movie audience immediately understood this, and were by all appearances excited to witness destruction so long as it occurred at the expense of the rich, then chances are that the public is also ready for anticapitalist art that doesn’t feel compelled to clobber.