The Purge: Anarchy (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

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For twelve hours, one night a year, the new Founding Fathers allow citizens to take place in the Purge.  As long as there are no powerful explosives and the ruling political bodies are not harmed, everything is fair game.  Sergeant Leo Barnes has only one person on his mind for the Purge, but when he comes across a group in need of help his own plans may be permanently delayed if he can't find a way to survive the night.  James DeMonaco directs and wrote the screenplay for The Purge: Anarchy, starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, and Michael K. Williams.

In need of salvation

“Change only comes when their blood spills.”

The Purge: Anarchy came out late July of 2014. One month later,  a police officer shot and killed the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Images began flooding from Ferguson of the protests, people singing and screaming together desperately trying to be heard, officers wearing increasingly threatening and militarized gear, and some people just out for a walk held at gunpoint by the people who are supposed to be protecting them. Then, when the Grand Jury verdict came out, hell erupted. Instead of enforcing order, Governor Jay Nixon instead settled on controlled chaos, rubbed the salt in the wounds of the populace in a disgraceful press release, and let the city burn.

One of the very first images we see in The Purge: Anarchy are minority groups struggling to make a living while a billowing American flag is imprisoned behind blinds. On a laptop, a militant man with glasses has focused his anger and yells at those few who are watching his broadcast to wake up to the evils of the Purge. In his eyes, it’s just another system for the rich to control the poor by giving the less fortunate 12 hours to commit whatever crime they wish – so long, as The Purge: Anarchy reminds us, it is not too destructive or against high-ranking government officials.

The images that follow are intimidating. Latino gangs gather together and arm themselves on a bus to go Purge rival groups, black men put on war-paint and stare intimidatingly at a white couple having their own problems, and a grisly white man is trying out his Travis Bickle routine and seeing how he looks with his guns drawn. These early moments of The Purge: Anarchy seem to be playing off most prejudiced views of minorities and considering the violence that erupted in Ferguson, among other places, after The Purge: Anarchy’s release it could be seen as racist propaganda.

Harsh, part propaganda, part messianic imagery delivers Carmelo's message.

Harsh, part propaganda, part messianic imagery delivers Carmelo's message.

I admit to being troubled by the way writer / director James DeMonaco put these images together. But as his film began to expand on his cinematic vision I became a lot less troubled, and a bit more nauseous. DeMonaco has told the story that he knows how to tell, and I respect that he does not try to disrespect minorities by claiming to speak for them. His story is of just another grisly white avenger trying to get some people through the night, a Punisher with a softer heart. What makes The Purge: Anarchy so effective is DeMonaco seems to realize that he is incapable of creating a story that speaks to problems he does not face. He’s just another white man with a grudge in the middle of a war he barely understands.

DeMonaco’s style reminds me a lot of John Carpenter, through much more slick and colorful. There’s a neon haze in the air that follows Sergeant Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) as he leads a group of people safely through the purge, like the Purge is an all-day club of violence. Leo shows a different side of militant thinking than the broadcasts by revolutionary Carmelo (Michael K. Williams) do. DeMonaco frequently shoots Leo in a dominating height over the people in his group, and he belittles the black women relying on him for safety frequently. When we meet Carmelo late in the film, DeMonaco frames him as equal to the women and belittles no one, trusting them with firearms to defend themselves.

These moments are important because DeMonaco slowly frames Leo as part of the old guard, the people who are unwittingly contributing to the ongoing massacre of the lower classes. The ultimate target of DeMonaco’s ire is made clear in one quick fantasy and an extended surreal auction. In the former a group of pristine citizens with daggers for smiles stand in a hazy, soap opera wonderland with machetes to sacrifice a lone black man. This is their version of paradise, a holy moment that they can only take part in once a year. In the latter, decor and low-light create a tasteful atmosphere among the sparkling gowns and crisply tailored suits for a bid on who gets to kill these people. These moments stand as a stark stylistic counterpoint to the gritty survival action taking place in the rest of the film and remind the audience that the reason the Purge exists is to lessen the financial load that living people bring.

Sometimes the image shouldn't be difficult to decipher.

Sometimes the image shouldn't be difficult to decipher.

This, as you may have gathered, is not the most subtle imagery. But antagonistic and broad images have their place in cinema, and for every austere drama we need movies that put societal struggles up on the screen in a direct, if imperfect, way. The Purge: Anarchy drags considerably in its middle act, but the setup and conclusion, where we watch Leo accomplish little despite the greater struggle he could contribute to, is effective because DeMonaco provides a revolutionary counterpoint in those moments.

DeMonaco’s visuals and scenario do most of the heavy lifting, but the performances help ground the stark emotions of his world. Grillo, in the lead, is most effective because of one late-film breakdown where we see how his ability to affect change has been neutered due to his typical wounded hero mentality. Then there’s Mr. Williams, who I love dearly, and here crafts a plain-spoken revolutionary who takes fashion tips from Spike Lee. Most of the supporting players get pushed aside as the journey progresses but Zach Gilford, who was stellar in television’s Friday Night Lights, makes a strong impression through his deep anger barely held together by a cordial façade.

Despite my appreciation of what The Purge: Anarchy does, I was still apprehensive when the credits rolled. Here was a film that reflects rage and fear that people are experiencing today. I’ve never been comfortable advocating what people should do in these times, because I’m not the one suffering. Is it right for someone with the artistic power that DeMonaco wields to advocate for the sort of armed revolution The Purge: Anarchy portrays? I can’t say, but he’s got me thinking about our roles in shaping the country, and who is privileged to speak. Leo is just another selfish “hero”, Carmelo is the one who struggles for his people’s right to live.

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Tail - The Purge AnarchyThe Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by James DeMonaco.
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, and Michael K. Williams.

Posted by Andrew

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