The Purge, a surprise hit last year, takes place in a futuristic U.S. whose totalitarian government, hoping to exorcise homicidal impulses in the populace, has instituted an annual holiday during which all laws are suspended for one night. The premise of Americans celebrating their national identity through rape, murder, and robbery inspires all sorts of associations, from the genocide of Native Americans to more recent hate crimes, yet writer-director James DeMonaco shrewdly avoided any clear-cut allegory. The movie touches on our current crisis of income inequality in that the people most vulnerable to violent attack are those unable to afford elaborate home-security systems. At the same time, one might interpret the purge as a metaphor for the destructiveness of big government (one benefit of the holiday, we're often reminded, is that it keeps the population down). Ultimately The Purge speaks to a widespread, nonpartisan fear that our fractured culture is approaching total breakdown.
The film was undermined somewhat by the schematism of its plot, in which a homeless stranger, trying to escape a bloodthirsty mob, breaks into the McMansion of an executive at a home-security firm (Ethan Hawke). Yet DeMonaco seems to have learned from this mistake; his follow-up, The Purge: Anarchy, is more expansive in its scope and more nuanced in its characterization. It's also a more accomplished piece of pulp filmmaking, the action delineated more smoothly and elegantly than in the first movie. As in the work of George A. Romero, the old-school craftsmanship brings clarity to the open-ended allegory, grounding the film in a concrete sense of space and time.
Whereas The Purge took place almost entirely in the executive's home, Anarchy follows several working- and lower-middle-class characters as they try to cross downtown LA during the annual bloodbath. The expanded playing field gives DeMonaco room to flesh out his fantasy scenario and imagine how different social types might respond to societal breakdown. The movie is also more involving emotionally because DeMonaco focuses on characters whose lives are difficult enough before the purge begins. Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a single woman supporting a sick father and teenage daughter on nothing more than a waitress's salary, is too intimidated by her boss to ask for a raise. Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez), a young couple preparing to separate, still depend on each other emotionally because neither of them trusts anyone else in the vicinity. And solitary police sergeant Leo (Frank Grillo) plans to hit the streets during the purge to indulge his suppressed vigilante impulses.
United by circumstance when the purge begins, these characters become a cooperative, hard-fighting unit as they fend off roving mobs and government-sponsored kill squads on their way to a barricaded apartment building occupied by Eva's boss. Their quest represents a thematic reversal of The Purge, in which Hawke's smug profiteer proves surprisingly adept at defending himself during the melee. Such a reversal is uncommon in the world of sequels, where repetition is the norm, and provides further evidence of DeMonaco's hearty imagination.