Many of us nerds were bullied as kids, and subsequently we dreamed not of a world without violence, but some sort of payback. Slicing up our tormentors with lightsabers or adamantium claws. Slow motion punching the jock bully in the jaw, hopefully while beautiful women were watching. As we grew older, some of us questioned this desire for retribution, our conditioned response (particularly in straight males) to strike back. But what do we do with these contradictory feelings, our questioning of violence as power against our catharsis when we see the bad guy get his comeuppance?
The Japanese cult classic film Battle Royale looms large in the minds of pop culture nerds ambivalent over our negative reaction to violence and our desire to see stylized versions of it. Battle Royale is almost meta in its questioning of this contradiction: a future Japan is made safe by telecasting, once a year, a brutal contest wherein a random class of young people is set in a trapped zone with weapons, and only one person is allowed to leave alive.
Itself derivative of such work as The Lottery and The Most Dangerous Game, the most interesting thing about the movie isn’t the conceit, it’s the myriad ways in which the young people react to this terrible situation. There’s a clique of girls in denial, living in a lighthouse and cooking for one another. A young couple commit suicide hand in hand. Some of the kids relish the opportunity to settle grievances. Two mysterious youth volunteer for the battle, their reasons unknown. And a group of hackers refuses to play the game at all and set about working together to find a way to break the system.
There have been many contemporary versions of this story told, many of which carry echoes of Battle Royale specifically. But none have been as compelling as The Purge: Anarchy. In a future America, crime and poverty are at an all-time low. But this prosperity has come with a price: a group of faceless politicians known only as “The Founding Fathers” have declared that once a year, on purge day, for twelve hours all crime is legal — including murder. The killing spree is televised like a pro sport, the idea being that controlled and limited violence acts as catharsis, a release valve. Some people use it to kill for fun, some people seek revenge for specific grievances, some don’t participate and try to hide or secure themselves as best they can.
The first Purge movie limited itself to one family in a gated community, touching ever so lightly on class privilege without committing itself too much on having a political stance. The Purge: Anarchy is set in an urban sprawl and is considerably more ambitious. Hustlers stand on the corner hawking guns for purge night. The wealthy pay for the privilege of murdering civilians in the safety of their locked, gated homes. Dudebros bristling with guns stuff themselves into a rolling bus and shoot out the windows at anything that moves.
The film follows five protagonists: a Black woman and her daughter, whose ailing father has given up his life to a wealthy cohort in exchange for money for them. A Latina and her white husband going through relationship trouble until their car is tampered with shortly before the purge curfew and breaks down before they can get to safety. And a strong, silent white guy action hero, with a bitchin’ armored car and guns, who obviously is going to participate in the Purge for some righteous cause, most likely avenging a family member.
Interestingly, The Purge: Anarchy is much more blatant about class than its predecessor. There’s a militant resistance group led by Omar Little — er… “Carmelo,” played by Michael K. Williams, who takes to the internet to dissect purge night as class warfare (the poor can’t afford blast shielding, high tech security, or bodyguards). There’s a provocative segment where the crew is kidnapped so that they can be hunted in a private hunting ground by a group of one percenters who bid for the murderous privilege. And while there are no Asians, Arabs, or Native Americans seemingly part of the purge — and what few Latino/a characters present are pretty shitty — the film at least allows race to be a subtext of class. It’s the Black characters who watch Carmelo’s broadcasts and relate to his desire to bring the whole system down.
However, as surprisingly compelling as it is, this is still a Hollywood movie. Strangely, though Carmelo’s entire crew is Black, race is never explicitly part of his speeches. He’s always ranting solely about class. It’s as if the filmmakers were afraid of tackling race even in a film with an already explosive premise. From what I recall, this film fails the Bechdel test – the women are either talking about the men in their lives, Carmelo, or wondering about the mysterious stranger and his secret. And the film never does anything with its most interesting commentary on institutional power — that the most powerful politicians, the ones who created the system, are exempt from being “purged.”
Consider the other current speculative film about class warfare, Bong Joon-Ho’s divisive but exponentially superior Snowpiercer. If Hollywood had made Snowpiercer, the train would still be running at the end of the movie. There would have been compromises: sure the train is bad, but we’ll find an equitable way to make it work for us heroic individuals who have suffered and made the journey. Not Koreans. Everybody dies, motherfuckers!
And the film is better for it. Because the point of Snowpiercer is we’re all part of a machine based on exploiting one another. There is no happy ending. If the machine exists, we keep it running. Someone is exploiting someone else for their own material benefit. Nothing to do but crash the whole goddamn thing and take our chances with the polar bears.
While The Purge: Anarchy is, in my mind, the most compelling Western knock-off of Battle Royale I’ve seen, in the end it’s still a Hollywood movie that chickens out about taking a bold stance — or any stance, really — about systematic injustice. The end of the movie is about individuals making choices. Do you purge or not? And why? But the system itself remains unchecked. There will be another purge night, and there will be another Purge movie. Hollywood wants the “anarchy” in its title, but it won’t destroy the gimmick. It wants to play at revolution and have a money-making franchise, too.