As befits a high concept franchise like The Purge, the three films in the trilogy are fairly schematic. Where the first offers a top-down approach, examining the purge from the perspective of a wealthy gated community, the second adopts a bottom-up perspective, treating the purge from the perspective of ordinary, everyday citizens, paving the way for the third, which takes an inside approach, focusing on the politicians and administrative bodies staging the purge as well as the preparations and aftermath of the purge in more detail. In Anarchy, that makes for a more dispersed focus, despite the film still being largely restricted to the period of the purge itself, as we’re presented with three plotlines – a mother and her daughter, a couple on the verge of separation, and a man who recently lost his son – in the hours before commencement descends on downtown LA. While the film doesn’t go to great lengths to elaborate these characters’ backstories, they’re all in fairly precarious situations to begin with, and none of them have managed to quite managed to make the nuclear family work in a sustainable way either, in sharp contrast to the insular suburban homes of the first film. Due to this change in focus and location, the political landscape feels quite different in Anarchy as well, despite the fact that it is only set one year later, with people starting to resist the purge (or take revenge on purgers) in a more emphatic way. As a result, the purge feels less like an anomaly and more like one night of civil war a year, although that also just testifies to its efficacy in containing all the fractious divides brewing with the country at large.
As in the first film, the scariest moments – in a traditional sense – tend to occur in the lead up to the purge, as the presence and awareness of the night ahead imbues every quotidian social situation with an unbelievably uncanny edge, a sense of hidden violence lurking just over the threshold of things. In many ways, that cusp of the purge is really the most terrifying and fascinating space in the franchise, just as, once the purge starts, all the terror comes from trying to ascertain whether strangers are still resting at that cusp or have given themselves over to the night in its entirety. Equally eerie, in those last few hours, are all the glimpses we get of of the preparations that have been taken to deal with the dead when morning arrives again, building a sense of government complicity with the killings that is much more foregrounded this time around. In that sense, it often feels as if the moment of commencement is the catharsis that “resets” society – sure, some people might take it further and purge throughout the entire evening, but in this film real purgers seem like the minority. For most people, those first few minutes after the siren are more than sufficient, and it just remains to make the best of it over the night ahead, and to farewell friends, family and loved ones with “stay safe,” the standard greeting of the national holiday.
At the same time, the fact that we are “out” in society, rather than inside a gated community, makes it even clearer this time around that the main victims of the purge are those people who haven’t got time or money to flee the cities for somewhere more remote, and that the purge is primarily a phenomenon of dense urban cores. As one of the characters puts it, “we’re downtown – where everyone comes to purge,” and the one thing that all the plot threads have in common is a desperate desire to get out of the inner city as soon as possible. With downtown precincts largely deserted, there is also a much clearer sense of the purge as a national holiday, and a key part of the American holiday cycle, with people going about preparing for its pageantry much as they would another national celebration, and coming dangerously close to being caught outside at commencement much as you might run it just a little too late to arrive at a Christmas and Thanksgiving party on time.
That urban scope also creates a much broader depiction of the purgers than in the first film, where the holiday was primarily the plaything of the aristocratic elite. To be sure, that’s still a factor in Anarchy, but there’s a much broader purge profile as well, thanks in part to the connections made to gun ownership and gun pride. When placed in an inner-city context, the purge suddenly feels like a way of containing the nationwide obsession with gun rights – as well as providing gun owners with a way of justifying their purchases – part of a fixation with conservative rights and duties that also naturally makes Anarchy the first film in the franchise to focus upon the political backdrop to the purge in more detail. While that may be more directly the province of Election Year, we do find out that the annual holiday is the brainchild of one Donald Talbot, who initiated it as part of a neoconservative effort to boost economic growth and consolidate wealth to produce “America – a Nation Reborn,” a slogan that turns out to be uncannily prescient of the other Donald’s “Make America Great Again.” From the outset, that immediately creates a new kind of sense of government agency in the operation of the purge, such that it is difficult to distinguish official vehicles from purge vehicles, with gangs travelling around in what appear to be retooled ambulances, fire engines and police cars, while using a kind of twisted legalese and bureaucratic register to carry out their nefarious deeds.
Yet for all that the purgers are presented as militant white men anxious to serve their government, they tend to dress themselves up so as to invoke the legacy and imagery of racial gang warfare in Los Angeles, creating a urban myth that purgers are all gang members, or that the purge is primarily way of containing gang violence and warfare. Drawing upon and perpetuating the very inner-city bloodshed that they purport to be saving, there is something a bit viral about the purgers, all of whom adopt a similar posture and stylised gait, as if basing their appearance and bearing upon what they’ve seen in news broadcasts in order to be included in subsequent news broadcasts. Even more so than the first film, there’s a sense of the purge as a form of social media, and a mode of digital self-fashioning, making the democratic discussion panels surrounding the event – and the forms of polite dissent that they permit – feel woefully inadequate and complicit.
In other words, it becomes more and more difficult to believe that the purge is simply a collection of vigilante mobs operating more or less at random. If anything, the first act works hard to evoke a highly artificial and theatrical imperative behind the purge that has its origins in some kind of alliance between the financial and political elite. In one of the eeriest scenes, one of the main characters – who subsequently discovers that her apartment complex has been targeted by government purgers for “rezoning” – discovers a note from her father informing her that he has given himself to a wealthy family to provide her with an $1000 dollars since, as he puts it, “that’s how the wealthy purge – they buy poor and sick people and they take them into their homes and kill them where they’re safe.” Far from being an uncontained rabble, then, purgers tend to be mainly white men who are anxious to rape, murder and puff themselves up with militaristic machismo, but only – somewhat contradictorily – so long as they can feel as if they are also acting upon their rights and that they are privileged in doing so.
In that sense, the main purger “type” here is someone with an enormous libidinal investment in the feeling of self-righteousness, whether through a sense of being chosen amongst the elect or acting upon inviolable rights. After all, being permitted to act upon one’s basest instincts as if enacting a virtue must be one of the greatest pleasures imaginable, with the result that there is a new and visceral jouissance to the purgers this time around that far exceeds the morbid playfulness of the first film, and that imbues every violence act with a sexual edge, as well as making every sexual act feel nascently violent as well. Far from being some kind of criminal fringe, most purgers are self-righteously patriotic, even or especially as they tell themselves that they don’t want to be purging but must for the sake of their right and duties – and the film is a testament to the perverse intoxication of continually invoking rights and duties (“it’s my right granted to me by the founding fathers”). It makes sense, then, that the most “heavy-duty” purgers are in fact government operatives charged with removing the population and rezoning key areas in the inner city, in a kind of recapitulation of the decimated neighbourhoods – and “gentrified” business districts – that presumably paved the way for the urban blight of downtown Los Angeles in the first place, to the point where the entire film feels like an allegory for the violence unleashed upon the city’s urban core over the last three decades.
In a city founded on automobile travel that violence is particularly clear on foot, and Anarchy brilliant captures the sheer pedestrian scale of Los Angeles – and the inner core – when traversed without a car, as night seems to stretch on indefinitely and the conclusion of the purge is removed to a largely notional existence. Indeed, I can’t think of a recent film set in Los Angeles in which the downtown areas play such a prominent role, as DeMonaco presents us with a city of alleys and narrow streets that could easily be mistaken for New York. In dystopian visions of Los Angeles, the subway often plays a key role as a synecdoche for a failed pedestrian and public sphere, and so it is here as well, by way of a magnificent sequence in which the main characters seek refuge with the rest of the city’s homeless along the tracks only to be flushed out once again by the government operatives desperate to fulfil their mission. Even above ground, though, there’s no sense of a genuinely private or safe space, with snipers, sniffer dogs, government resources and roaming hordes creating an atmosphere of unbearable surveillance that makes it only a matter of time before the group are captured.
In a chilling penultimate sequence, we realise, however, that the government doesn’t simply kill undesirables on the night of the purge, but hands them over to wealthy enclaves for use in their own private purge rituals, effectively privatising the holiday and selling off their urban redevelopment schemes to the highest bidder. Auctioned off to a group of one-percenters desperate to exercise their rights, the main characters are set loose in a giant hunting-ground styled like a cultivated garden or parkland, where they’re confronted with a team of wealthy assassins while the audience watch from an elevated plinth. In fact, this garden is nothing more than a giant warehouse replete with a few fancy light fixtures and a fountain, but the main characters only discover that after somehow managing to decimate their captors, thanks in part to the timely arrival of an anti-purge faction headed by Carmelo Johns, a radical pastor played by Michael Kenneth Williams. Styled more like an idea of a park than an actual park, this hypothetical space almost plays as a parodic riff on the illusory and elusive public spaces of LA, as well as the ways in which digital space supplants public space, as the purgers bring all their gaming fantasies to life for a single night in what often feels like an excerpt from a first-person stealth game more than a traditional or classical film.
While there is a powerful coda, then, this really feels like the climactic sequence, an incredible vision of the one night of the year when the 1% don’t hide behind tact or discretion but instead openly and obscenely celebrate class privilege. An utterly dystopian account of how much people will unleash once they believe it is their right or duty (“Get out there and make yourself better citizens”), DeMonaco once again concludes with the eerie moment at which the purge ceases and duty shifts from killing to saving, and the right to kill becomes the right to be saved from being killed. As all the purge vehicles reveal themselves as the ambulances, fire engines and police cars they always were, and set about dealing with the dead and injured they’ve produced over the last twelve hours, it feels as if DeMonaco is satirising the operation of ideology itself, above and beyond any particular bias of his own. That’s a bracing conclusion, and so it’s not hard to see why critics have focused upon Anarchy’s B-movie qualities more than its conceptual brilliance, but if you give yourself over to its ingenuity you’ll be provided with one of the most challenging thrillers and political allegories to come out this decade.