The Purge, written and directed by James DeMonaco, is a pretty silly premise – that for twelve hours one night of the week all crime including murder is legal (except for some notable exceptions, like some elected officials). The movie posits that at some time in the immediate future there’s a sweeping, drastic overhaul of the US Government, so that by 2022 crime has been significantly reduced by means of this annual release of pent up negative emotions, etc. It’s a horror movie premise that doesn’t have any root in reality whatsoever.
I mean, sure, those committing crimes get to release something, but the movie conveniently ignores the implications its premise in favour of a simplistic throughline. What about the families of murder victims, what about rape victims? Doesn’t that 12 hours generate in itself a lot of the hate and negativity the Purge is meant to alleviate? It strikes me that not many people will care about the premise too much, but I do, and a few others will too.
In the first movie of the series, Ethan Hawke (Daybreakers, Sinister) plays James Sandin, the patriarch of a typical middle-upper class American nuclear family: he makes a lot of money as the seller of high-tech security systems – enough that his wife (Game of Thrones’ Lena Heady) can stay dolled up in a skirt and heels every day, and enough that they recently added on to their already huge suburban mansion. There’s some implication from voice overs as the end credits roll that the stock of security companies track high when the annual purge is over, giving rise to a vague notion that the entire purge itself might just be a cynical money grab – for me, that would have been an interesting subplot. The addition of the house also brings with it some neighbourhood resentment because he’s sold the same security system to his also-wealthy neighbours. I guess I didn’t really see why there’s so much resentment bubbling under the surface here. It isn’t like Hawke’s character is on a different stratus as his neighbours – they all have mansions! If DeMonaco is trying to say anything about this part of the plot is that even the rich are resentful of their peers … I guess?
From here, The Purge moves into blunt-force satire. While Sandin and his family are supposed to represent the audience’s values, there’s more vague subtext backing up the rich-get-richer undercurrent in the form of a most polite young man who comes off as a Democrat’s worst shrieking nightmare of Republican youth. Played by Australian soap star Rhys Wakefield, this character is so over-the-top with the scary Right Wing Apocalypse side of things. Sure, he’s taking part in The Purge, but mostly because he’s racist and hates poor people. Yep, that’s it. In this premise you don’t really need a motivation, so any will work – including this one. It’s just unfortunate that this particular character’s motivation is so on the nose with the politics in play. Why not make him more subtle? Why not combine this character with that of the teenage daughter’s boyfriend, whose own arc is wrapped up in a pretty pointless manner?
I could go on and on about the weaknesses of the plot, but they are numerous, and I’d prefer to save my ire for one character in particular – the one who actually kicks the story into gear. Aside from the stereotypical dumb, self-obsessed teenage daughter (who spends the entire movie dressed in a middle-aged guy’s schoolgirl fantasy costume, and who is clearly played by an actress in her 20s), the Sandins have a tween son (Max Burkholder from the pathos-heavy show Parenthood) who seems to have some kind of mild autism thing going on, but maybe not? It’s kind of hard to tell – the kid who plays the role has an air of detachment, but it’s never mentioned at all. The entire story is predicated on something he does that is so spectacularly stupid within the context of the movie that it sat with me through the viewing. Not only is it stupid, it’s written as if the kid has no idea what stakes the annual Purge plays with, or how it could impact his family. Not only that, but when the kid does what he does and directly puts the entire family in jeopardy, there’s no real sense of anger in what he does. Instead, the focus shifts completely away from culpability to an undercooked subplot about recapturing one’s humanity from the inhumanity of The Purge via selfless sacrifice. I had a tough time with this whole plot point. It would have totally worked if the movie was all about the first Purge – because, really, the story of how The Purge was originally created and implemented is far more interesting than this story choice.
The satire peters out from the midpoint of Act 2, when the movie becomes more of a kinetic version of The Strangers, and becomes fully derailed in a climactic Act 3 plot curve that hearkens back to a moment in Act 1. By then it’s too late, and this plot choice leads to a flimsy, protracted ending that mostly renders the preceding 85 minutes pointless. When a certain character simply wanders off at the end of the 12 hour Purge, his status quo hasn’t been changed at all – and he was kind of the whole point of the movie!
The reason I watched this is because I heard the second one was decent, so I’m going to work through the three movies of the series, but as the credits rolled, the first installment was exactly how I thought it would be three years ago when I decided not to bother with it first time around.