Opening with an echo of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York, a caption informs that by the year 2023 unemployment in the United States is below 5% thanks to the reforms of the New Founding Fathers and their introduction of the Annual Purge during which all crime is legal including murder, allowing the supposedly otherwise productive and well balanced population to channel their aggression, anger and resentment in a single night of chaos; as the clock ticks down to 7pm on March 21st, the time approaches for the fifth Purge.
In downtown Los Angeles, the largely Hispanic waiting staff will their last customers to leave, but still bid them to “stay safe” as they lock the doors behind them. Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) hurries home to her sick father Papa Rico and daughter Cali (Zoë Soul), watching a broadcast by the activist Carmelo (Michael K Williams) who decries what is about to happen. “The Purge is not about violence. Who dies tonight? The poor.”
Across town, Shane and Liz (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) stop for groceries on their way to Liz’s sister where they will spend the night, but they are challenged by a gang in the parking lot. Keen to get to safety before sundown, Shane and Liz hastily take their leave but their car stalls on the freeway and to their horror they realise they have been sabotaged; it is apparent some do not wish to wait for commencement to begin. Faceless behind their masks, the gang have followed them, a force of nature, terrifying, unfathomable and unstoppable.
Watching the newsfeed on what is happening across the city, Eva and Cali believe themselves to be safe until a systematic attack on their building is staged, the tenants rounded up, an event witnessed by Sergeant Leo Barnes (The Winter Soldier’s Brock “Crossbones” Rumlow, Frank Grillo), himself seeking a single target on a mission of revenge. He can turn his back, go on his way, or he can allow himself to become involved and save the innocent women, a choice that will change the fates of them all.
Writer/director James DeMonaco has taken his second visit to this dystopian future to the streets, and while the conceit is no more outrageous than Soylent Green or Logan’s Run, a means to keep society in prime condition by eliminating those who do not contribute, with the escalation of the purgers into well equipped tribes this time he has channelled the primal energy of John Carpenter and Walter Hill, Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Streets of Fire, the rising tension channelled through disparate characters who have nothing in common but the events which have thrown them together.
Like rich kids paying exorbitant premiums to go on safari to slaughter defenceless animals who have done them no harm, some will pay for the privilege of killing without danger to themselves, the weak are rounded up from the streets and delivered to Purge parties where they will be auctioned off; even among those who themselves have chosen to Purge, this is not in the spirit of the game. Avoiding many of the trappings of genre, instead this is filmed as a straight drama; this is not horror, this is life.
The point of the film is not that this could happen but that it is already here in all but name. The governments of the developed world may not have sanctioned wholesale war on the poor but they have bred the circumstances under which it thrives, but the stockbroker found hanged outside the bank where he stole the pensions of investors stands as a salutary warning alongside the words of Carmelo: “Changes only come when their blood spills.” America has grown accustomed to fighting wars in distant lands, but Anarchy brings it to the homeland and handed a gun to the zealots who proclaim themselves “the right hand of the free world and the left hand of God” as they shoot indiscriminately from rooftops.