The Purge (2013) (Redux)
Since it came out last year, I’ve softened on The Purge quite a bit. Whilst I still stick by a lot of my original review, I read it back and thought I was a little harsh, considering the things I liked about it. I bought the Blu-ray recently and have actually been looking forward to the sequel a fair bit, so I figured I’d give the original another crack of the whip.
“Decriminalised murder- an outlet for American rage.”
It’s 2022. America is enjoying a new golden age. Crime rates are low, unemployment likewise and the rich are getting richer. This is attributed to a group called “The New Founding Fathers” who introduced the concept of “The Purge”, an annual event in which all crime, including murder, is legal for 12 hours. The logic behind this being that all the events of the Purge act as a release valve for society’s pent-up anger, aggression and violence. Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who has earned his wealth selling home security to protect people from any harm during the Purge. He returns home to his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) to prepare for Purge night, safely hunkered down behind reinforced metal doors and various other barricades. The trouble starts when Charlie disarms the security to let in a wounded stranger (Edwin Hodge), not realising the consequences. Soon enough, a group of enthusiastic purgers, led by a polite and eloquent man (Rhys Wakefield) arrive and give the Sandins an ultimatum: either give them the wounded man so they can exercise their constitutional right to “release the beast” or have their defences torn down and suffer the consequences.
I’ve seen people slate the basic idea of The Purge, calling it “unrealistic” amongst other things. It’s a dumb criticism to make, really. Is Star Wars realistic? Is The Dark Knight? No, but they set up their own rules about how stuff works in their universe and they run with it. Sure, the idea of the Purge being voted into any kind of law, let alone working as a way to boost the economy and improve the lives of average people is ludicrous, but at no point does the film feel like it’s just about one cool concept (and it is a cool concept, fuck you) regarding legalised murder and government approved lawlessness. It has something to say, albeit occasionally muddled. I love the idea that the Purge may have just been a way to deal with the poor and keep the rich in the money. Think about it- the rich can afford super-swanky home security (as well as better weapons should they want to actively participate in purging) whilst the poor are pitted against each other, pretty much becoming a “problem” that fixes itself. Admittedly, the way these undercurrents are conveyed is almost insultingly simplistic, with numerous news reports expositioning the shit out of the situation. It may be dumb, but at least it has something to say and has a few unique concepts of its own, unlike 90% of the crap out there.
So, great central idea with a surprising amount of satire and social commentary. Good. What else? Well, the opening 20 mins are decent, if (if you ignore certain things like clunky dialogue and contrived set-ups, but I’ll get back to those) building dread for the Purging to come. It does a good job of world building, even including neat details like displaying a specific blue flower outside your home to show your support for the Purge. As I mentioned before, the Stepford feel to the neighbourhood is a nice touch, complete with uncanny valley-eque residents with fixed, unconvincing smiles. I still love the opening CCTV montage set to Clair De Lune. The cast are a mixed bag, but Rhys Wakefield is the standout. His “Polite Leader” is a creepy villain, completely immersed in his constitutional right to murder and maim. If there’s one trope I have a weakness for, it’s when a bad guy shoots one of his allies just because, in this case because one of his lackies forgoes his polite protocol. Lena Headey also does well with a severely underwritten role and gets a nice moment of dark humour near the end that is genuinely funny.
The rest of the film doesn’t fare as well. Zoey is a typical, eye-rolling teenager that doesn’t bring anything to the party but her kinky Catholic school uniform. Worst character by far though is the young son, Charlie. He’s an important element to the story as he’s just the right age to start thinking for himself and becoming aware of the horror of the Purge, whereas the rest of his family have seen it happen many times before, become desensitised to the Purge and accepted it as a necessary evil over the years. He’s our way in as an audience, so its a shame that the writing really doesn’t do him any favours. The contrived nature of the opening scene where he has a burnt baby doll RC tank, really clunks like a motherfucker. It’s so obvious that this bit is just excusing stuff that happens later. Same with his weird obsession with wearing a heart-rate monitor and checking his vitals regularly. These things are promptly forgotten about until just the right moment when they become suspiciously useful. It’s lazy stuff.
The biggest problem I (and a lot of other people) have with The Purge is the fact that after a decent premise and promises of a brutal but interesting world, they stick to one location and have it devolve into just another home invasion movie. Instead of taking full advantage of the concept, the Purge night suspension of emergency services is used merely as a way to avoid the “they cut the phone lines” explanation as to why the cops aren’t showing up, which is disappointing. It fails as a horror, too, quickly changing tact from creeping dread to easy jump scares. Plus, it features a cardinal sin of tension resolution during a frantic grapple- the “baddie” getting shot by someone off-screen. I’ve always felt cheated when that shows up in films and The Purge does it multiple times, robbing us of a proper and hopefully wince-inducing kill, which is surely part of the appeal of this kind of movie. Also the dialogue is pretty damn terrible, ranging from functional to boring. That said, some of the Polite Leader’s monologues are good.
“Tonight allows people a release for all the hatred and violence that they keep up inside them.”
Despite the arguably huge problems I have with The Purge, I still like it. It’s a mess, but an interesting one. I’d much rather watch a film like this that shoots for something and misses than the zero-effort crap like the Paranormal Activity sequels and spin-offs that are out there. The wheels do fall off rather spectacularly, but the core of it is strong and entertaining.