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The Purge: Anarchy is really two movies in one, both struggling for aesthetic and thematic dominance.

For those out there (like me) who have never heard of this thing or the previous The Purge, the premise is straightforward: sometime in the near future, the American government has driven crime and unemployment to all-time lows by instituting one 12-hour period a year when all crime is legal. Those who don’t want to participate in “the Purge” barricade themselves in their homes and try to wait out the night. Those who do want to participate… well, I’m sure you can imagine.

So one of the two movies at war in The Purge: Anarchy is exactly the pulpy, ridiculous mess you’d expect from this premise. The film’s credits ape the industrial-goth aesthetic of the credits in Seven, but inflect it with ultra-ironic patriotic iconography; the characterization of the government is a textbook parody of fascism combined with some ill-defined theocratic leanings; and there are ridiculously over-the-top anti-government militants.

But the other film – which involves the five main characters and upon which writer-director James DeMonaco lavishes most of his attention – is a relatively well-acted and well-executed thriller with moments of actual moral substance.

Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are a young married couple on the verge of a separation, trying to finish up a few errands in the hours before the next purge commences, at which point they’ll whole up with Shane’s sister. Eva (Carmen Ejogo) is a working-class waitress finishing up her shift after failing to secure a raise from her boss. She returns to her apartment to barricade herself in with her daughter Calie (Zoë Soul), who’s been watching the internet videos by the aforementioned revolutionaries, and her father Papa Rico (Ben Beasley) who’s sick and running low on his meds. Finally, there’s a man we only ever get to know as “Sergeant” (Frank Grillo), who’s arming himself to the teeth in a lonely apartment. A quick and mournful visit by what appears to be his ex-wife makes it clear his prepping for some mission once the purge commences.

These early scenes are actually the best part of the film, as they generate a remarkably palpable sense of surreal foreboding. It’s like a small town of people shopping and wrapping up their jobs in the hours before a massive hurricane has been predicted to strike. Everyone is deliberately trying to maintain the usual instinctive rhythms of everyday life, as if they might ward off the impending insanity.

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But then the Purge commences. Shane and Liz’s car breaks down on the freeway – sabotaged by a street gang of creepily-masked kids. Papa Rico disappears quickly, and in one of the films nastier bits of class critique, Eva and Calie discover he’s sold himself to a wealthy family so they can kill him for their pleasure. Then a heavily armed strike team of some sort assaults Eva and Calie’s apartment, forcing them out into the night as well. The two women are about to killed when Sergeant, just passing by, decides to rescue them in an attack of conscience. Also during the violence, Shane and Liz slip into the back of Sergeant’s car. Then, when the car’s engine block gets shot up, the quintet is forced to trek across downtown Los Angeles in search of safety for the four civilians and another car for Sergeant.

The script does not go super deep into the formation of this unlikely community. But what it does do it does well. I’m always happy to see Gilford onscreen, but the real standout here is Soul as Calie. The young actress brings an utterly unexpected gravitas to the role, transforming Calie into a rock of deeply felt and tightly controlled moral fury. You’ll recognize Grillo from bit roles in the likes of Captain America: Winter Soldier. And as the mysterious badass with a past the film doesn’t give him a very meaty role – up until the end, that is. But Grillo does what he can with it, and Calie works as an effective foil to Sergeant’s blunt force personality.

The purpose of the Purge is ostensibly to let everybody get their aggression out. But the film is smart enough to note the real effect is to weed out society’s less necessary and less privileged members, which is why crime and unemployment have dropped so much. The violence is occasionally stupid, but it rarely if ever gets offensively exploitative. DeMonaco keeps things well-paced, and actually pulls off some pretty effective absurdist horror-film aesthetics whenever presenting the masked street gang. But then he also turns the class assumptions of that subplot a bit on their head, and gets in some real sociological zingers about how the cultural assumptions of the Purge can infect even “good” people. Ultimately, we’re not that far from our tribal ape ancestors, still taking orders from the pack leader.

Between those observations and a climax that involves a genuine moral choice rather than a mere shootout, The Purge: Anarchy avoids being sunk by its own worst aspects. I laughed at portions in a bad way, but I was engaged throughout and moved by the ending.

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