Guest Post by Billy Russell
The premise in The Purge is a pretty original one: For twelve hours in one day of the year, all crime is legal. Because of this, all Americans have the opportunity to purge their sins without legal repercussion and violent crime is at an all-time low. Things are going well for America. Unemployment sits at only 1%. People have it better than anyone in just about any era in human history. The premise allows for a million original plots that could arise, so it’s a shame that the plot the filmmakers settled for was a standard home invasion one.
The Purge tries to be both a political allegory and a taut, horrifying thriller, but unfortunately doesn’t really reach either high point. Any political point made is sort of rendered irrelevant because the politics involved are pretty dumb. The horror-thriller elements are a little too neutered, a little too sanitized by playing it too safe with the goings on.
The Purge was written and directed by James DeMonaco, who had written the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, also starring Ethan Hawke. He also wrote the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s most amazing misfire in his entire filmography: Jack. The Purge at least represents his most original and probably best-written script, though it’s awfully derivative. Much of it plays out like a watered-down version of Straw Dogs.
Whereas in Straw Dogs, the moral line between good and evil is blurred and made ambiguous, The Purge presents a plot where the good guys are good and remain good and the bad guys are so cartoonish in their evil that it’s sort of hilarious. The main villain played by Tony Oller does little more than smile creepily at the camera and make bad decisions regarding the longevity of his crew in order to send a message to the family trapped inside their home. The rest of the crew wears masks, obscuring their faces, while sporting sweater vests and other typical yuppie gear (reminding the viewer of other, better movies like The Strangers and Funny Games).
In a movie where all crime is legal and the most dangerous villain may be someone closest to you, it was a strange decision to reduce the home invaders to masked aggression, little more than sentient zombies—though the decisions they make along the way doesn’t put their intelligence on a scale much higher than that of a mindless corpse.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as the husband/wife, father/mother duo of the family are actually quite good in their roles. Maybe it was intentional to give their characters such standard names like James and Mary because they basically represent “the good” while the nameless strangers are “the bad.” Their performances are not necessarily spectacular, but certainly rise above the movie that they had been cast in.
The two children in the movie, Zoey and Charlie (played by Adelaide Kane and Max Burkholder), are two of the dumbest characters in any movie I’ve seen in a long time. Whenever something important is about to happen, they’re god knows where and their parents have to spend time looking for them. Just stay in one place! Stay where your parents know you are! If something as slight as an unexpected moth lands on one of their shoulders, they’ll disappear in one of the house’s seemingly endless bedrooms, cowering for fifteen minutes until they pop out in order to yell “boo!” at the camera in an unexpected jump scare that this movie absolutely relishes.
In one of the funniest scenes, Mary asks James where Zoey is and with such exhaustion in his voice and just not caring anymore, he responds with, “Ehhh…She ran off somewhere!” A movie like this should pride itself on establishing tension and suspense, but no such tension really exists in The Purge. There must have been a dozen moments where there is silence, silence, silence and then BOO!, and the audience screams not because they’re scared, but because the deafening noise of the scare chords (which work to let you know when to be scared; it’s like the horror version of a sitcom’s laugh track) blurting out suddenly. The audience is only recoiling in pain.
I counted no less than four scenes where someone was about to be killed, but their deaths were delayed by the killers taking their time to ready their gun/axe/machete/whatever and make a grand display of the death. This is a common trope you see in just about every movie, and I tend not to nit-pick certain clichés that have already been picked apart to death, but the sheer number of instances where a bad guy had to stop to pose or stop to monologue was staggering.
There was one moment where a neighbor is commenting on James and Mary’s house, how it had been paid for by the whole neighborhood, basically, because he’d sold everyone a new security system to keep them safe during the annual purge. The neighbor says it with such acidic, barely-concealed bitterness, the little political statement on selfishness and opposition to social services felt sort of like being bonked on the head with a frying pan.
Given that The Purge was a Platinum Dunes and Blumhouse production and Michael Bay served as a producer, the actual direction and editing of the picture was actually quite restrained and slick. There were moments of chaotic editing, but for the most part I appreciated how it had been handled. The direction was sure of itself and the cinematography was pleasing to look at. I was definitely reminded, though, that I was watching a movie that Michael Bay had a hand in when the daughter, Zoey, had to traipse through the plot wearing a fetishistic Catholic School Girl outfit and many shots lingered on her legs…despite the fact that her character is supposed to be underage.
Something involving the audience’s uneasy sexual attraction to a young, pretty girl would have been an interesting direction for the movie to have gone in. In a world where all crime is legal for 12 hours, it would have been interesting to comment on what sick, twisted perversions would rise up in some of the most seemingly normal people, but the movie never felt confident enough to do that. Even though it was Rated-R, I felt that it was pretty clearly geared toward an immature audience and didn’t have the nerve to plumb the depths that would have given it a better, nastier edge. Most everything that unfolded in the The Purge felt like a safe bet and most of it was remarkably predictable.
I feel like not much thought had gone into the actual purge that the movie is named after. The purge seemed like little more than an excuse to put a family in danger and have an easy answer for why the cops aren’t coming. Questions came to mind like: How can you really confirm a murder occurred during the purge? Stealing may be legal during those 12 hours but possession of stolen property is a crime…would those stolen goods be repossessed? If everything is going so well for the economy, why are so many homeless people still around to be murdered in this world?
This is a fun movie to watch with an audience. As much as I’ve bitched about The Purge, I’m still giving it a passing grade because I was never bored. I laughed a lot and during a few moments I found myself guiltily entertained by the out-of-place violence that should have been gruesome and totally un-sexualized. It was a movie I absolutely should not have liked, but…what the hell, I had a fun time and I didn’t feel like my money had been wasted.
Near the beginning of the movie Zoey is with her boyfriend (a forbidden love!) and she tells him, “I love you.” The audience groaned. He then, instead of saying that he loves her in return, says that saying that is lame and that they should growl at each other as their own communicative method for love. GRR!! GRR!! It was one of the most surreally lame moments in any movie and it was hilarious. Whether or not that was the director’s intention, I was still entertained.
I would recommend The Purge in that it’s mindless—though it’s really trying not to be—and dumb entertainment with a political message that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The muddled political statement works in its advantage; no one will be offended because liberals and conservatives alike will think it’s equally stupid. This may just be a movie that can bring this country together.