Calvin Lee Reeder (The Rambler) Talks James DeMonaco’s The Purge: Anarchy

Maybe I don’t respect cinema enough, maybe I have a primitive mind or maybe I’m just a bad guy; but I love movie violence.

Maybe I don’t respect cinema enough, maybe I have a primitive mind or maybe I’m just a bad guy, but I love movie violence. When it’s well-timed, nothing makes me laugh harder. It’s exciting to me. Am I just another diluted mouth-breather of the unwashed masses? Yeah, probably. So now you know who you’re dealing with.

I didn’t think I was gonna like this one — the ads were pretty rough for me. It’s a matter of taste, I guess, but the villains looked a little too much like the Marilyn Manson faithful I went to high school with. It felt dated and wrong. I wouldn’t have seen this movie based on the trailer; it was a poor salesman. I saw the first Purge and I liked it enough. I even defended it a little. But I don’t know, man, this looked kinda bad to me.

Turns out this movie is good! And it’s really different from the first one. Which is impressive to me, because it happens to be from the same writer-director, James DeMonaco. It’s tense from the beginning and it doesn’t mess around with unneeded character development. There’s just enough info and you know who to root for right away. The performances are pretty darn good, save for a few expositional flare ups. It’s action, horror and suspense wrapped in the neon noir galaxy of Downtown LA. It also has a little bit of the vibe of TheTerminator and the score is really cool.

If you don’t know, the Purge is a 12-hour holiday in America where all crime is legalized. I’m sure there’s a lot of trespassing, dope-smoking and illegal parking going on but this story focuses mainly on murder and destruction. It’s a horrific concept but it has a million holes. Why don’t they just go to Canada? Why does that dumbass have an ax? Doesn’t he know about the machine guns? If you like having fun, don’t ask questions.

The movie starts out on the eve of the Purge, about two hours before commencement. We meet Eva (Carmen Ejogo), a waitress hanging around after work trying to get a raise from her boss. With each passing moment that we inch closer to the big party, pressure builds. Eva eventually makes it home safely to her elderly father and teenage daughter but before you know it the Purge is at her doorstep. Eva and her daughter are abducted by men in SWAT gear with huge guns. They kick and scream but it’s not enough — they appear to be totally fucked.

There’s this other side noodle that develops when a clean-cut couple’s car dies on the 6th Street Bridge and leaves them stranded in the DTLA wasteland with about an hour before bedlam. They’re being stalked by some effectively terrifying hoods, the ones that I previously thought were just Marilyn Manson mall punks, but now I’m really scared. Funny how context can do that. Anyway, the clean-cut couple also appears totally fucked. That is until a nameless Batman-type guy shows up. The Batman guy is played by Frank Grillo. He drives an armored Dodge Charger and he’s cool; I hope he had fun in this role.

Somehow the waitress, her daughter, the white-bread couple and Batman have found themselves in the exact same place. Grillo’s character can shoot, fight and drive very well. He saves the day for a minute. But then a machine gun round rips through his radiator and they’re all foot soldiers again. It’s better if I don’t reveal too much else, but they basically roam the streets from hell to breakfast before being snared and delivered to a weird event where they’re auctioned off and hunted down, Hunger Games-style.

Each place the story goes, the tone changes dramatically. From bleak to comic to terrifying to playfully savage; the film is built to house all of those things and for the most part does it well. It borrows heavily from other recent Hollywood hits and it feels a little cheap, but I didn’t really care. And what’s the point of getting upset over that? This is a sequel and its primary objective is to make a huge profit. It doesn’t hide that. It does manage to find its own identity in there and, for what it’s worth, I enjoy this franchise way more than Saw so far. I like how basic the concept is — it makes the world malleable.

This is a bloodthirsty, testosterone-fueled fantasy and I wouldn’t debate anyone who finds the violence excessive and gross. It’s totally that, but there are quite a few sociopolitical angles played out in this one. Some are over the top, some are pretty right-on. Michael K. Williams plays an anti-government, Weather Underground-type leader who’s able to control the airwaves in short bursts. He’s 100% against the Purge and tries to inform the public that they’re being put in danger so politicians can get rich. I didn’t really get that part. There’s also lot of sarcastic God and country rhetoric that aims to separate the upper crust from the proletariat. Orwellian themes abound. You could really go deep with it if you care to, but I’m more into blood and stuff like that.

All in, it’s a pretty entertaining deal and had me on edge for most of the show. I’m impressed with James DeMonaco’s ability to create and maintain tension. That cast is really good and their performances make this more than just a horror film. It’s important to cast good people; DeMonaco clearly knows this. I like The Purge franchise: it’s ridiculous, but a total step in the right direction. I’ve seen enough zombies and cabins in the woods.

With a strange mix of underground horror shock and existential atmosphere, Calvin Lee Reeder made a name for himself with short films like Piledriver and Little Farm. His features films The Rambler (Anchor Bay Films) and The Oregonian (Factory 25) divided and excited Sundance audiences just as his shorts had before them. Reeder specializes in turning lo-fi splatter pics into art films by meshing high-concept thought and design with genre storylines. Follow him here.