I can confidently recommend The Purge to anyone who has consumed a half-liter of cheap vodka within the last hour and who hasn’t seen a science fiction or suspense movie since 1983.
I happened to see it with only two shots of watered down Jack Daniel’s in my bloodstream, and that wasn’t near enough to make the experience interesting.
To its credit, The Purge probably boasts the most intriguing movie premise rolled out by Hollywood in the past half-decade. The year is 2022, and crime, poverty, and homelessness are all rocking utopian lows. However, as mandated by the Sci-Fi Price of Universal Happiness clause, these boons come at a dark cost. No, it’s not a lottery for human sacrifice. No, it’s not teenagers sentenced en masse to a fatal battle royale. No, it’s not even a single abject child locked in a box of eternal misery.
No, in the dark future of The Purge, all laws and legal consequences are suspended for one day from 7pm to 7am. Even murder is allowed–and even encouraged–by the United States government.
The Purge introduces us to a society that embraces the secret, destructive inclinations of humanity rather than push them down. “Purge Day” is a means to vent aggression and violence in a socially acceptable way. What makes the premise interesting is that we all recognize this unthinkable monster lurking somewhere beneath the surface. We gravitate to the idea of the “beast within,” a buzzword even used in The Purge’s friendly PSA announcements.
It’s a scenario ripe for delving the conflicted and suppressed psychology of the everyman, or for making biting political observations about our association between legality and morality, or even to study the long-term effects living in such a pristine yet openly brutal society would have on a sensitive and aware human being.
You could make ten brilliant movies from The Purge’s core concept, but instead, director James DeMonaco decides to do none of these things and instead revisit the well-trod territory of “crazy psychopaths invade a home”. (The Strangers anyone?)
We know what we’re in for pretty much right away. Ethan Hawke plays “Ethan Hawke”, an executive for a company that sells security systems (but which has apparently never heard of “safe rooms”) and which has done pretty well for itself due to the “New Founding Fathers'” morally-questionable system for controlling society. Ethan Hawke and his wife Cersei Lannister have two kids and a big house and live in a neighborhood that has historically remained untouched by the Purge.
When there’s a long, musicless shot of Cersei reaching into the fridge for something that couldn’t possibly be plot-related, you can almost hear the audience counting down to the obligatory false-startle jump scene. You know the one. Our character closes a door or looks up in a mirror after washing her face or closing the medicine cabinet and, even though they have no reason to be on edge, HOLY STAB OF VIOLINS BATMAN, SOMEONE IS STANDING RIGHT THERE! Oh, but it’s just you, Other Character We Know.
It’s a cheap, easy way to maintain tension in the introductory first act. But the cheap and easy doesn’t stop there, no sir.
The home invaders wear masks for no real reason except to look scary on promotional material. Oh, and to dehumanize them so we feel less bad when Ethan Hawke starts blowing them away with a shotgun. Their ringleader is a nameless prep school man-child with a soulless, plasticine grin who is channeling the sociopathic soul of Patrick Bateman. When Ethan Hawke’s son, Baby Gerard Way, grants a homeless token black man sanctuary, Patrick Bateman and his gang of Bioshock splicer baddies demand the “filthy swine” be released to them for purging, or else they’re coming in after him.
From there, it pretty much proceeds how you think it will . There’s a late-game twist (which sort of cuts the wings off our otherwise interesting villain), but you’ll know exactly what it is by the third scene if you’re paying any kind of attention.
That’s really The Purge’s main problem. It plays too much by the books. It pretends to be brutal and unexpected, but at every turn it bends to cliche and tired plot devices.
A close second in terms of major flaws is the movie’s completely misunderstanding of how human beings work.
For instance, the family doesn’t lock down their house until five minutes before the Purge starts. What if someone dangerous got in beforehand? (SPOILERS: they did). Any reasonable human being would barricade themselves in at least a few hours early, if not a whole day.
Ethan Hawke sells security systems and knows they’re mostly just for show, but instead of installing some sort of safe room, he buys a small armory. But then, instead of everyone arming up–even after a stranger escapes into the house–the whole family shares a single weapon for the brunt of the film.
The daughter character is constantly wandering off and nobody seems to think this is a bad idea.
Baby Gerard Way is told to hide in the basement by himself with a flashlight that he leaves on.
Moreover, people seem to be functioning members of society for 364 days of the year, only to miraculously transform into mindless, brainwashed cultists as soon as the sun sets on Purge Day. It’s just not believable. People don’t act that way! If you’re aiming for social satire–which The Purge is obviously doing with a stormtrooper’s accuracy–you have to build believable characters to inhabit your dystopia. Otherwise, it’s not a future that could happen to us, it’s a future that could happen to an ape-like race of extremely easily manipulated, completely moral-less beings who lack the survival instincts of a sea slug and who are all hopped up on mescaline.
What’s most disappointing about The Purge is that it could have been so many things. Imagine this: Hard open on Purge Day, violence ensues. Our main character loses someone close to him, turns against the system. Spends the rest of the year trying to overturn Purge Day, only to be met with overwhelming opposition. He becomes darker and more violent, more desperate. When Purge Day comes again, will he become what he hates in order to bring about the change he desires? Will he kill for the greater good? Will he kill for personal vengeance? Will he even survive the night?
Although the premise is rich with potential, The Purge fails to deliver on any of it. It plays to cliche, boasts a legit “magical negro”, and worst of all, feels like a movie made by rich people targeting “poor people who hate rich people” in a simplistic and cynical attempt to turn a profit. The Purge doesn’t respect its audience, doesn’t understand either of its genres, and seems to have been written by someone who has only had passing experience with human beings.