Theatrical Review: “The Purge”
Produced by: Michael Bay, Jason Blum, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller, Sébastien Kurt Lemercier
Written by: James DeMonaco
Edited by: Peter Gvozdas
Cinematography by: Jacques Jouffret
Music by: Nathan Whitehead
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French, Dana Bunch, Peter Gvozdas, Karen Strassman
Bad news: This thing’s probably making money on its opening weekend. I went to go see Mud last night (excellent movie, by the way), and the lines for this movie, which disturbingly included several families with young kids, were pretty large. Look forward to next year’s sequel, people. I kind of regret paying into the box office success by going to this, but my friends were all chattering about it so I guess I kind of felt obligated to see it, if only because we were all coming up with theories as to what would occur in the movie, and I would’ve felt left out if I was the only one who hadn’t seen it come Monday’s carpool.
I have to admit, aside from maybe one little plot point early on, none of our predictions came true. Guess we don’t see that many crappy movies to actually get a handle on how these kinds of movies work. Oh, and spoiler alert, if you couldn’t tell already, I hated this dreadful excuse for a movie.
The concept is initially intriguing. It’s the year 2022, and some sort of new order in the American government instated a 12-hour period of lawful lawlessness – decriminalized criminal behavior, if you will. We learn (repeatedly) throughout the movie that this purge instated due to studies that show that allowing a certain period of lawlessness results, somehow, in crime throughout the rest of the year practically disappearing. We’re also told that unemployment is down to 1% of the population, though, given the enthusiasm and support many show for this night of hedonism, it’s pretty easy to see why. Hint: It’s not because The Purge is also a motivational tool.
Formerly a destitute man, James Sandin has turned the night into an opportunity to sell full lockdown armored security systems, mostly to his neighbors, who are obviously but inexplicably secretly resentful towards him for doing so. (Possibly for reasons why consumers who complain, “Businesses are just trying to make money off me.” Um, duh!) It’s apparently a lucrative job, as they have a large house that they just made bigger in their incredibly nice, gated neighborhood. On the night of The Purge, James and his family – Mary, his wife, Charlie, his young teenage son, and Zoe, his teenage daughter – stay holed up in their house, protected by their own security system. The parents support the event but choose not to participate in it. Naturally, the central concept of the film sees them facing the Purge head on and realizing just how horrible this all is because, otherwise, what would be the purpose of the movie? (See previous comments about business and consumers.)
Writer/director James DeMonaco brings this about by having the son, a conscientious objector, allow a homeless and –by the way – black man who is being pursued by weapons-wielding and –by the way – white yuppies into their home-turned-fortress. The yuppies, who hide their faces with creepy masks, speak in flowery prose, and frolic about gaily while wearing prim dresses and suits with academic seals, demand that the –by the way – white family hand the “filthy swine” over to them as fellow supporters of their right to purge, or they will break into the house and kill them all. They make this an easy task to do by cutting the power to the house, forcing the parents to wander around in the dark, panting while wielding guns and flashlights as they search for the guy. It’s also an effective way to allow the filmmakers to more easily employ jump scares and fleeting glimpses of out of focus, potential danger.
At this point, given the rules of this major holiday, I would like to point out how ridiculous it is that this house is not armed with turrets. Yes, the family has a handheld arsenal, but why not negate the worry and nastiness of having crazed murders loitering around on your lawn and threatening your family when you can so easily shoot them all into goo remotely? Has this somehow never happened or occurred to anyone before? Or are turrets prohibited?
There are a few exceptions to the lawlessness, you see, as helpfully explained by the national broadcast that goes out just before the event begins – no federal workers can be harmed, and only class 4 weapons are authorized for use. Perhaps turrets are not considered class 4? This is an attempt to do some world-building and give some larger context of the event. Obviously the government has some ulterior motives going on, but the movie doesn’t even explore this and mostly just spends its time spinning its wheels and reiterating over and over the point that this is supposed to be for the greater good and allow for the rest of the year to be pretty much a crime-free paradise. The news reports tells us. The parents tell us. The villains outside tell us. Repeatedly. This film has some security issues, probably.
The implied insidiousness behind this, of course, is that the poor and homeless, like the one that the son rescues, are ill equipped to defend themselves from those who have enough money to own things like machine guns and security systems, and the rich family who harbors this refugee (who is, by the way, barely ever seen for more than a few minutes) are the only ones who can protect him. Social commentary, you see. The film tries to become some sort of critique on greed, prejudice, classism, and welfare programs, but it’s mostly just a generic horror thriller without the usual supernatural or fantasy elements to help with the suspension of disbelief.
It’s not that the premise is idiotic. Though it certainly wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny, it has the potential to make for a decent enough film. The Purge is never clever, smart, or creative enough to get us invested in this world. It starts just an hour before the event begins, which means we have about … 15 minutes in real world time before everything goes down, and the rest of the movie becomes yet another home invasion scarefest. It’s also curious that murder seems to be the only focus in this temporarily lawless world. How many people are embezzling money from their companies? What about rape? The teenage daughter is predictably singled out at one point, but it’s mentioned only in passing. But, seriously, how many children are sexually abused on this night and then let go, only to fear being victimized again next year?
This is a premise with the potential to be deeply unsettling and even more impactful if it had gone on a larger scale and been a bit more bold in its subject matter and willingness to explore darker scenarios, and yet the film is mostly content with having scary people creep up from behind the protagonists very slowly and then having the characters embed a few blades and bullets into each other until time is up, which doesn’t say much about anything. We don’t even get to see the aftermath of the night. I imagine that the underlying angst in this neighborhood’s H.O.A. meetings are far more riveting and compelling than what actually happens during the Purge. No, the film just ends, having never actually cared about the characters and their actions. This is actually something that I could see a sequel remedying, with characters that are experiencing and participating in the Purge suddenly having to come to terms with the ugliness inside them and others and allowing for a better sense of world building that this film never sufficiently provides.
But I wouldn’t want this film to be rewarded by becoming a franchise. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey are far better actors than this film deserves, and while the other actors are nowhere near as good (Adelaide Kane is horrendous as the daughter, though the script doesn’t afford her much to work with, but Rhys Wakefield is captivatingly campy in his performance as the leader of the yuppies, I admit, and might make for a decent, minor Batman villain), the potential for improvement are slim-to-none, as potential franchises like this rarely improve and attract better filmmakers as time goes on. It’s best to just forget this film and move on. Or just go watch The Hunger Games again, which explored all the same themes while also being both much better and much more shocking than this malformed turd.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1 / 5