Saturday, July 19, 2014

Devils' Night: THE PURGE: ANARCHY


The Purge was a dumb movie, mostly for the way it took an ingeniously preposterous premise and made it a total bore. It imagined a near-future America where crime rates are low because of an annual “Purge Night” in which all crime is legal. (“Including murder,” the warnings hilariously remind.) With such a provocative smartly stupid premise, it was a shame that the movie became a dim home invasion thriller that thoroughly squandered an idea so gloriously pulpy. At least the new sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, has the wherewithal to explore its concept in some livewire ways, breaking out of its predecessor’s single-location stinginess to watch a Purge Night unfold across an entire city. This movie colors in details of The Purge, sketching a picture of a self-righteously judgmental society glorifying the rich, ignoring the poor, and worshiping at the twin altars of greed and guns. (Sound familiar?) The first Purge was a bungled sociological thought experiment, but the second doubles down on its social commentary, bluntly hammering out bloody metaphors. The execution is still fairly junky, but it steps past the inherent silliness of its premise and finds some timely resonances.

Returning writer-director James DeMonaco’s script finds a handful of disparate characters caught outside when Purge Night begins. There’s a struggling waitress (Carmen Ejogo) and her teenage daughter (Zoë Soul) who are forced out of their apartment in the projects. There’s a young married couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) whose car breaks down, leaving them stranded. Those four are sympathetic audience surrogates who were planning on hunkering down and waiting out the night peacefully. But then there’s a man (Frank Grillo, with perfect hoarse voice and steely determination) who strapped on his bulletproof vest, loaded his guns, and drove out into the night with the specific purpose of murdering one individual. Hey, why not get a revenge killing out of the way while it’s legal, right? His conscience gets the better of him and he ends up helping our stuck characters. They’re not the most complex of characters, but the simplicity of their goals – to stay alive – carries them through.

We cross the city with a feeling of danger and distress, the cheap dark digital cinematography blearily suggesting an ominous sense of citywide unrest. We see how robbery and rape is just as likely as murder, with packs of men (no women) swaggering around with bats, machetes, machine guns, flamethrowers, and dogs, eager to partake in their right to a night of mayhem. Some ride motorcycles, others drive big white murder vans, while still others roll up firing automatic weapons out of the backs of modified semis. Those Purging wear spooky masks, move menacingly, and perpetuate a feeling of frayed societal bonds at every step. We hear gunfire in the distance. It feels like an unusually intimidating Halloween party crossed with a riot. The chaos implied around every corner as our protagonists try to avoid running afoul of these nasty gangs is claustrophobic, but the variety of dangers and locations serves the concept far better than hunkering down in one place.

What works best about the film is the way it tightens the tension around its characters, even as it works to expand upon the world of The Purge. It uses the opportunity to make a biting critique of our own society’s bloodlust and staggering inequality by taking it to extreme and absurd ends. We get glimpses of a justifiably angry viral video star (Michael K. Williams) agitating for an end to The Purge, arguing that it disproportionately impacts the poorest in society. Late in the film we see a gaggle of rich white folks having themselves a black-tie dinner party, the entertainment being the poor people they drag in off the street and murder.

Although Anarchy is better at activating the promise of its premise, the execution is still wildly inconsistent. The dialogue is flat and clunky, as if it has been awkwardly translated, and conversations have a tendency to go sideways and circular, returning to the same ground over and over. It’s not fun to look at most of the time. It’s dimly shot and indifferently framed. The staging is choppy, edited around jolts without much sense of rhythm or style. Gunfire grows repetitive as stalking and hiding sequences grow rote. You flee from one band of attackers, you’ve fled from them all. A tighter script and direction that can more adeptly get off on the insanity while still condemning it (think prime Verhoeven) would be all this series needs to really satisfy. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

And yet, despite all of my reservations, The Purge: Anarchy works on a fundamental sloppy downbeat B-movie level. The film engages with its concept far more successfully than it engaged me. But the plot is simplicity itself – the characters just want to survive the night – moving quickly and confidently. It has a couple of big ideas, lots of bloodshed, and a concept that’s some kind of dumb genius. The Purge itself makes little sense in theory or in practice, but as a brutal reflection of our modern ills, it resonates.

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