(Lena Headey, Ethan Hawke, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Alicia Vela-Bailey; US theatrical: 7 Jun 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 31 May 2013 (General release); 2013)
Let’s examine the premise for a moment - it is America, 2020. A mere seven years from now. In the interim, crime, poverty, and disenfranchisement have gotten so bad that, when a future election is held, a group known as “The Founder Fathers” (or, perhaps, “The New Founding Fathers”) are put into power and have created something they believe will cure the ills of an ailing nation. In conjunction with specious scientific studies which suggest many social problems have their roots in the horrific realities of everyday living, and that by letting people act out on their aggressions, the country would be a better place, they come up with a concept. If possible, creating an outlet for such “violent tendencies” would lead to a kind of communal rebirth.
So these wizened politicians invent something called “The Purge.” For one 12 hour period once a year, crime is 100% legal. Yes, there are some arcane limits (according to the Emergency Broadcast message that appears before the ritual commences, “Level 10 government officials” are off limits and that the “usage of Class 4 weaponry and above is forbidden”), but for the most part, anything anyone wants to do is completely justified. As a result, we hear anecdotal evidence that The Purge has been working, with those in full support of the process putting a bouquet of blue flowers outside their homes to indicate their position. While not specifically mentioned, this could also be a way of indicated a family’s desire not to participate or a kind of communal “off limits.”
Quite the concept, right? Especially when you consider the possible fall out among certain ideologies as well as the clear class delineations. After all, if safety is of primary concern, then those who have will continue to do so over the course of 12 hours, while those who do not find themselves the fodder for those who need to “unleash the beast”...or whatever The Purge catchphrase is. Of course, appalling particulars are easily glanced over. Rape is also legal. Pedophilia is legal. Someone could break into a boarding school and systematically defile every underage kid on campus before cutting them up and consuming them - without recourse. Robbery is legal. Heck, insider trading is legal. Smart Purge participants would only have to sit back and wait for the mandated time period. Then they could sell their drugs, hack corporate computers, and basically send our entire capitalistic system into chaos.
But that’s not what happens in the cinematic excuse for a thriller entitled The Purge. In fact, the film which features this incredibly illogical strategy seems more concerned with being an edge of your seat home invasion thriller ala Lady in a Cage, Desperate Hours, The Strangers, and Darren Lynn Bousman’s Mother’s Day remake than a cutting social commentary. Writer/director James DeMonaco was obviously looking for a way to pitch his otherwise pedestrian horror movie to studios, so he came up with this idiotic idea. Granted, it is intriguing, yet it’s so poorly thought out and executed that the end result is more aggravation than angst.
We are supposed to care what happens to the Sandin Family - Dad James (Ethan Hawke), Mom Mary (Lena Headey), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane)and sensitive son Charlie (Max Burkholder) - and bite our nails to the quick when a noble gesture on their part (letting an injured homeless man seek shelter in their fortified home) turns an angry mob of preppy killers (lead by the ridiculous Rhys Wakefield) against them. These glorified goofballs, wearing interchangeable masks to match their interchangeable onscreen personas play Three Little Pigs with the Sandins before breaking down their barricades. Thus begins the typical, tired cat and mouse between the well-armed (and aggressively adept at self-preservation and shooting)home owners and the “skip to my Lou” stupidity of the intruders.
Now, the worst part of this movie is not the robotic plotting. It’s not the concept that both of the Sandin children create the vast majority of the problems for their parents (she’s “in love” with a much older boy who will stop at nothing - literally, and this is The Purge, mind you - to get what he wants while her brother is all tepid and touchy feely to the point of doing the dumbest things to jeopardize this relatives). It’s not even the slack security system (a Ford F150 and a couple of chains counteract its high tech trappings) or the lack of a legitimate backup plan (Hello? Ever heard of a panic room? A fallout shelter or basement bunker? Some pissed off, underfed guard dogs?). No, the film’s main failing is providing a speculative setting just ripe for sensationalizing and failing to do much with it except pay some paltry lip service.
Yes, there are a couple of blink and you’ll miss them moments when our cast laments about how the poor and the marginalized become the targets of terror. Someone even suggests this is a kind of surreal social genocide, the resulting prosperity and low unemployment rate (less than 1%) a direct result of “eliminating” said “statistics.” But instead of making the movie about this, instead of allowing the Sandins to have a change of heart and a rejection of all The Purge stands for, they go all moral on us, claiming that human life should be protected while popping caps in the asses of the invaders. As they drive axes into the backs of people they don’t know and shoot round after round into the bodies of their attackers, they agonize over the acts, as if this is the first time the reality of The Purge has actually set in.
Really? REALLY? You set up a series of surveillance cameras to give you and your brood a firsthand view of the horrors, you celebrate with Purge Parties and TV viewing sessions (which cover the carnage with true tabloid tackiness) and NOW you’re getting a conscience? Scruples are one thing, but James has made a mint selling security systems like his to almost all of his neighbors, and he’s never batted an eye about this before? Maybe it can be chalked up to the “hitting home” defense. After all, you never understand something until it’s actually a real part of your life. But The Purge perpetrates these illogical leaps in plotting as a means to get from Point A to Point B, not to help us understand the odds.
And going back to the whole “social engineering” element of the event for a moment - who believes that letting people (and in the case of this movie, well-educated, seemingly adjusted, and privileged people) randomly kill or be killed by whoever and however will somehow benefit us all? What about the victim’s families? Are the murderers just setting themselves up to be next year’s targets? Again, there are hundreds of crimes that could occur that don’t have such final conclusions. What about the women raped? What about the people swindled? The companies bankrupted? Wouldn’t some wise radicals specifically attack those corporations who cater to the Founding Fathers, making their potential hold on power all the more tenuous?
Perhaps this is much ado about a dumb, dopey horror film but it does suggest something more significant. If The Purge was really interested in pursuing an agenda oriented around its various proposed politics, it should have truly gone after them, shivers be damned. The resulting film may have failed as terror, but it might have said something more significant and satisfying. Of course, one imagines that there was little desire on Mr. DeMonaco’s part to explore what The Purge truly signified. It was just a glorified gimmick to get the movie made, which in the case of what’s up on the screen, wasn’t worth the wasted potential.