The year is 2022 and for one night a year in America, all crime is legal thanks to The New Founding Fathers. This night is called The Purge and it is the setting for the film of the same name from writer and director, James DeMonaco. The Purge starts out with an intriguing premise and a plays out as taut thriller for the first half of it’s brisk 85-minute running time before ultimately collapsing under it’s own ambition to make statements about class structure, morality, and human nature.
The film leaves you with many more questions than answers, but not in a good way.
We’re told The Purge allows America to be an almost Utopian place, with almost no unemployment or crime, and that it’s an incredibly violent event. Beyond that we don’t get any background about it, it just is. By leaving out the why and how of The Purge’s creation, DeMonaco forces us into a place both obviously American, and yet strange enough to feel foreign and uncomfortable. The trailers make The Purge seem like a simple home invasion movie, but what’s on the screen has a much more sci-fi feel. Think Twilight Zone more than The Strangers or Funny Games.
We spend the night of The Purge with the Sandins, a wealthy family living in a gated community, the type of place where families can afford massive home security systems to lock themselves in on this night and let the danger outside pass. The exact type of systems James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has made a fortune selling. James settles in for the night with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey) teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and preteen son Charlie (Max Burkholder). What starts as night locked up tight from the dangers outside takes a turn when young Charlie lets a wounded man in from the street who flees into hiding in the giant house. Following not far behind is group of armed people in masks out “hunting.” They gather outside and demand the man be turned over to them in certain amount of time … or else.
The family interactions after being thrust into an active role in The Purge work well. And as the pressure begins to mount the movie makes the audience hold on tight with well-executed rising tension. Up to this point, I was very much on board with where The Purge was going.
However, once the inevitable home invasion begins, and the violence escalates, the movie starts to lose steam. There is a very distinct turning point in The Purge. At the capacity screening I attended, you could feel when the audience mood switched abruptly from rapt tension to funhouse horror. There was more laughter and the mood became lighter, even at moments of extreme violence.
I’d like to believe this change in tone is intentional on the part of the filmmakers — that it’s a way to say films can be about letting out tension and stress and giving people a taste of what A Clockwork Orange called, “The old ultra-violence.” By satiating our bloodlust on a night out at the movies and letting people in on the “fun,” it proves the point about our own nature that craves wanton violence and mayhem in a controlled setting.
I’d like to interpret it that way, but what I really believe is that the movie just gets lazy.
I really wanted to like this movie, but I just can’t. It’s attempts at being topical about the “haves” and and “have nots” are too heavy-handed, and the character motivations become too inconsistent. They fail to stay within guidelines of its own alternate reality. The family starts acting like people from our reality rather than the film’s.
When the morals of our world begin to creep in, the entire premise fails. It’s stops being about the Twilight Zone-type world it established and becomes about ours. Once that happens the movie really doesn’t have much to say. It becomes predictable, and what it believes are clever moments can be seen coming from miles away. The ending is unfulfilling and continues the film’s problems with questionable character motivation. There’s also a touch of, “insert sequel here.”
In short, The Purge becomes just what the trailers promised — another Hollywood home invasion movie. It wants you to believe it’s more than that, and early on it is, but it doesn’t keep it up. It’s unfortunate, because somewhere inside the premise of The Purge there is a great movie, but this isn’t it.
Your early promise made me want to love you, The Purge, but I just can’t.