Note: while I don’t get into any real specifics of plot, there are some things in this review that could be considered spoilers. If you would be upset by knowing in a broad sense whether this film has a “happy” or “sad” ending, then it’s best not to read this one.
I’ll be up front with you and admit that I really did not want to see The Purge: Anarchy. The first movie was positively dreadful, and this new film is being released by the same creative team only one year after the last one. Every instinct I have told me that this movie was guaranteed to be terrible, but then, sure enough, positive responses to the film started to trickle in. The feedback was mixed, sure enough, but there was enough positive buzz from people I admire and trust that I felt I needed to see this for myself. As it turns out, the sequel is much better than the original – better by a fairly surprising degree – but it’s still not very good.
For those of you who don’t know, the basic premise of this series is that in the near future, a political party called the “New Founding Fathers of America” comes into power and quickly establishes an initiative to combat the growing levels of crime and poverty in the nation. This initiative is called “the Purge,” and it sanctions a period of 12 hours once every year where all crime (with a few key exceptions) is legal. Over the six years since the initial Purge, issues of crime and poverty have actually improved, but some argue this is a result of the rich (who can afford expensive weapons and protective measures) slaughtering the poor (who cannot). That’s the film’s big social commentary, and it’s handled with about as much subtlety as a punch to the face.
This lack of subtlety in the film’s main themes would be forgivable if the film was smart enough to weave them into the narrative, but instead, the film takes a scattershot approach that is more about emphasizing individual moments rather than crafting a coherent whole. As the film opens we begin following three separate groups of characters. We have a young married couple who are on the verge of separating, a mother working a low income job and trying to support her daughter and ill father, and a man who is arming himself to the teeth before venturing out on Purge night for some kind of revenge plot that is not made initially clear. As you would expect, these characters eventually come together and have to find a way to survive the night, but the way the story gets to this point is so haphazard and sloppy that it distracts you from the intended weight of the scenario. Ideally, a film should be a series of setups and payoffs – that thing happened, THEREFORE this happens; a character decides to do something, BUT another character does something different. It’s okay, and even powerful, for a film to do things that are unexpected, but those surprises need to at least make sense in retrospect or else the whole thing comes across like a lazy narrative shortcut. In this case, there’s no real significance to how these characters meet up, they just all happen to arrive in the same place at the same time because the story needs them to. This kind of coincidence might have been more acceptable if the scale of the setting is smaller, but the fact that this film takes place in pretty much the entirety of downtown Los Angeles strains credibility.
That said, the decision to scale up the action of this film is the main thing that sets it apart from its predecessor. The first movie took a somewhat interesting premise and used it only in the service of empty exposition for a standard (and poorly executed) home invasion flick. This movie instead begins to explore that idea in more interesting ways and we get to see more clearly what it’s like in a nation that allows all crime for one night. In the process, this film becomes much more a dark action movie and more-or-less abandons the pretense of being a horror movie. There are a few clumsy jump scares, but for the most part scenes are shot to highlight the intensity of a chase or a shootout and less to establish an atmosphere of dread. There’s a certain unease that comes in the early part of the film, as time runs out before the beginning of the Purge, but once the sirens signal the beginning of the night, that tension mostly evaporates. The action itself is mostly serviceable with only a handful of sequences that are noteworthy for being either effective or mishandled, but the whole thing suffers from a lack of any cohesive through line.
The middle part of the movie is the only time when there’s any kind of clear goal to what our characters are doing – in this case trying to reach the home of a friend so they can ride out the night – but even that is bogged down by scenes that lose track of the urgency of that goal and veer off into tangential scenarios. The rest of the film is rather aimless and meandering wherein only one character has a real objective, but said objective is intentionally hidden from the audience. This creates an issue not only for interest in what’s going on in the story, but also for our connection to the characters and their emotional arc throughout the film. If the film can be said to have one main protagonist, it’s probably Leo Barnes, the aforementioned revenge driven character played by Frank Grillo. Grillo does solid work in this, but his whole purpose as a character is undercut because we don’t fully understand his motives. We get that he’s out for revenge, but we don’t understand why he cares so much about this or why we should care. By the time the film does finally reveal what this is all about, it’s completely underwhelming, and would have been much more effective as information given early in the film to define the character rather than saved for a halfhearted reveal. This withholding of information undercuts the redemption arc the film wants to give him and creates an ending that feels totally out of line with the rest of the film. Without giving away specifics, the movie’s themes – bungled as they may be – are incredibly cynical, and the film demands and equally cynical note to end on, but instead we get this weird, unearned happy ending at the last minute that hurts everything else that came before. If this redemption arc had been established during our introduction to the character, this optimistic ending might have played better, but as it is, it fees like it’s the ending of a completely different film.
There’s other weirdness, like the fact that a character in the film unironically comments on the fact that “not enough people are killing each other during the Purge” when that’s literally the only crime we see people commit, but these are mostly minor nitpicks. The film’s biggest issue is once again that it establishes an intriguing idea, but is too dumb to know how to tie that idea into a compelling story. This film may be better than the initial entry in the series, but despite its larger scale and more competent action, its failings stem from exactly the same place. Unless this film just bombs spectacularly, The Purge 3 is probably inevitable, and I’d like to say in advance that I’m opting out of that one. Fool me twice, and all that.