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'The Purge: Anarchy' attacks the wealth gap without subtlety

By Omar Mahmood, Daily Arts Writer
Published July 30, 2014

“The New Founders of America invite you to celebrate your annual right to Purge.”

You better obey. Watching “The Purge: Anarchy” is, at the end of gripping suspense, morbidly satisfying. The concept behind “The Purge” is so simple, and set only nine years from now in 2023, that we hardly have to suspend disbelief. The world is quite recognizable – the technology is not that different, and the people live and talk like us.

For 12 hours there will be anarchy. For 12 hours all crime is legal. Now roam the streets for the blood of that one girl who never accepted you, that one drunk driver who killed your son, your own sister for dancing with your husband ... And so director and writer James DeMonaco forces us to ask what we might do if we were plunged into anarchy. We have till dawn, and a relentless countdown is imposed on our conscience.

The movie begins ominously – no house is safe. Just after sunset, Cali (Zoe Soul, “Prisoners”) and her mother Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo, “Sparkle”) walk into Papa Rico's (John Beasley, “Everwood”) room to find a note explaining that for $200,000 he has volunteered himself to be butchered by a wealthy family. We see what looks like a grown-up Richy Rich standing smiling eerily with his mother and father with a machete in his hand, dressed up in dinner coats, and she in a sparkling blue dress. Papa Rico sits dignified and dressed up in a chair and living room that that are covered ominously by plastic. The two women back in his room are helpless, and right from the beginning we are struck by the injustice. “It's how the rich Purge,” explains Eva, paving the way for a message that DeMonaco repeatedly beats into every single matinee.

The racial and socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor could not be more exaggerated. It speaks to a raging sentiment in today's America, and it may not be so far-fetched to say that the film itself is a vicarious catharsis for the 99 percent. The New Founders of America, explains the passionate young Cali, have rigged the game so that the poor are killed every year, and the rich alone are to benefit. She watches a video online of an impassioned rebel named Carmelo who vows to strike back agains the rich this time. “Profit-making,” he declares, “is not the essence of democracy.”

The wealthy are without fail shown as white and posh, and the poor are overwhelmingly people of color and only trying to make it out alive. Cali and Eva are from a struggling Hispanic family, while the friends who take them in for the night are also Hispanic. Everyone purging on the streets is white.

Toward the end, our band of heroes is captured and stuffed into a truck by a gang of masked hoodlums, but then they explain that they're not out to kill, but to make money. They are selling their catches to the rich. The constant socialist message is overdone, captured best in the image of a banker hung from the ceiling on the grand entrance of a bank, his body bound by a sign that explains that he “stole our pensions.”

Although DeMonaco's action-packed story keeps us guessing, the dialogue lacks subtext and subtlety. It feels as if the actors are made to explain the plot to us along the way, which is unnecessary, because the plot naturally drives itself. His attempt to converge three different storylines of three different families is valiant, but it leaves little room for horror. The film starts off with some genuine jumps, but toward the end it seems DeMonaco has decided against horror after all.

The mesh of storylines and themes can limit the actors' potentials. Yet despite the poverty of his lines, Frank Grillo (“The Grey”) delivers a gripping performance as a mysterious sergeant, a performance that may well be the best yet of his career. In him the audience has a hero who rescues our protagonists and fights so passionately for justice. His face is memorably livid as he shoots up at the bullet-proof glass behind which rich spectators watch him fight for his life. At the end, as he clutches the head of the man who killed his son and bangs it against the carpet, crying for his lost son, yelling “Do you know what you took from me!” he has our blood curdling for vengeance. And yet he finds it in his heart to forgive.

In Grillo, as much as the corrupt government official insists that “We can't have heroes,” we have a hero. We walk out with faith in our human nature, and a sense of justice at the end of a worthwhile thrill ride.


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