The Purge, whatever else it might be, is hella eager to be a satire, and this is a huge problem. Not because I don't think that violent genre pictures can't be satire; they can be great satire, as RoboCop and Death Race 2000 prove. No, it's a problem because The Purge is just dreadful. Totally, unceasingly awful in all respects, both related to its intelligence as regards its social commentary, which is minimal, and to its mechanical function as a horror-thriller, which might even be worse: it's easy to fuck up satire, but it really oughtn't be quite this easy to fuck up something as bog-standard as a home invasion thriller quite this thoroughly.
A lot of that has to do with The Purge's inordinately high concept, which is much too specific and complex to be dealt with as ineffectually as it is here. The notion is that in the future, America comes to the brink of almost total, irrevocable economic collapse, and to combat this, a group of elected politicians, called in later years "The New Founding Fathers", instituted an annual event called the Purge, where for 12 consecutive hours, all crime is legal. By giving a chance for every American citizen to vent his or her anger and rage in a safely circumscribed period, crime has diappeared almost completely, and so has unemployment, currently relaxing at a static 1%. Already, we're in the red zone: how, exactly, does giving America a 12 hour span in which to loot, rape, and murder without consequence achieve these things? There are a lot of possible explanations: it makes employers try a lot harder, so they don't get killed by disgruntled ex-employees; enough people have been murdered to level off the the number of people relative to the possible number of jobs. How it's supposed to have almost completely eradicated crime, I can't even hypothesize, but the movie says something about psychic cleansing - sure, whatever. The point being, when a movie is based on a concept to the degree that The Purge is, the viewer shouldn't be obliged to launch into a chain of "what if?" scenarios. The film should indicate what's going on, particularly when the film is as invested in cultural commentary as this. You can't, after all, comment on a culture you've insufficiently defined.
Here's another big problem I found: the movie takes place in March of 2022. In footage of previous years' annual Purges (they're all videotaped, of course, which is so obviously a parody of our love of violent news and reality programming that the movie doesn't even bother to stress it), we see that one of them took place in 2018, so that gives us an earliest possible date for the first Purge. The New Founding Fathers were elected; that's definitely stated. And if their plan was active by March, 2018, they had to have been office following the 2016 elections, no later. So in three and a half years - let's be generous and say four and a half, they shot the movie a while ago -the movie is predicting a "quadruple-dip recession", which doesn't fit in even the most morbidly pessimistic economic analyst's predictions. It simply can't happen that fast! Three downturns in three years isn't a series of downturns, it's a straight-up depression, and that's clearly not what the movie wants to have us believe took place.
It's not very honorable to nitpick like that, but The Purge brings it upon itself. It is a movie about world-building; it wouldn't include all of those little tossed-off details if they weren't meant to help create the reality of the society the film depicts. So it had damn well better get those details exactly right, because double-checking the script's reality is, after a fashion, the most important thing the audience is there to do. And I didn't even bring up the film's indication of technical stagnation; other than some glasses that broadcast a video feed, the characters are all using suspiciously normal-looking phones and tablets.
Anyway, it's not like there's anything else better to do than nitpick. The Purge is dreadful: ill-paced, dull, predictable, and it seriously mismanages the thrills of the back half. The situation is this: James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has gotten spectacularly rich, even more than he was to start, by selling Purge-proof security systems. When the big night comes, therefore, he and his family - wife Mary (Lena Headey), resentful daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), autistic-seeming son Charlie (Max Burkholder) - are all ready to cosy down in a home so insanely big that we never remotely get a handle on how it's all laid out. Or maybe that's just a sign that director James DeMonaco can't do his job. Hard to say. Once the home is on lockdown, with thick metal sheets covering all the windows and doors, Charlie sits and stares at the security monitors while the rest of the family putters around, being alienated from each other; he's thus the only one to see a wounded African-American man (Edwin Hodge) staggering down the street, asking for help, and so he makes the obviously dumb choice to open the gates long enough to let him inside, to escape from the gang hunting him.
Meanwhile, Zoey's boyfriend Henry (Rhys Wakefield) has snuck into the Sandin home, to "talk to" James about not being such a hard-ass about Zoey's dating life. Talk to him with a gun, the first of a number of twists the movie hides so inexpertly that it's hard to say whether we were meant to be surprised by it or not. Panicked, James shoots and kills Henry, which puts an even worse damper on the evening than having a wounded man skittering about, terrified.
And then, the plot finally decides to begin: the gang hunting the wounded man arrives at the Sandin house, and the very articulate young man leading them (Tony Oller, who I don't suppose was cast entirely because of his uncanny resemblance to Brady Corbet, of the American Funny Games, though it surely didn't hurt) informs the family that if they don't turn out the refuge, all the security systems in the world won't stop hell from raining down on them. Thus does a vague, meandering, deeply ineffective satire coalesce into a fast-paced, also deeply ineffective home invasion picture, in which nothing is intense and we are never terrified, at least in part because we don't like any of the characters.
The point of all this is obvious: so damn obvious. The Purge is a economic satire for people who found The Hunger Games maddeningly inscrutable. "DO YOU SEE HOW THE RICH VIEW THE POOR AS LITERAL ANIMALS TO BE ROUNDED UP AND SHOT?" screeches the film, loudly and repetitively, while only giving one single speaking role to a black person, that of "Nameless poor victim of the psychopath whose clothing literally references his Ivy League education". The metaphors could not be more obvious, drawn-out, or insulting to the viewer's intelligence. I'm even sympathetic to the message the film believes itself to be communicating, but there's nothing clever or effective about the way it's being presented here: outside of a sense that Society Is Unjust, the filmmakers have given no thought at all to the way things are, the way things are headed, or why any of it; it marries a juvenile understanding of politics to a juvenile love of violence, and harangues its way through, making up in screaming what it cannot achieve in sophistication.
If it were smart, I could forgive its failings as a thriller; if it were thrilling, I could forgive the lead-footed, obvious satire. As it is neither smart nor thrilling, I just hate the holy shit out of it, and while I admire the production design, and the way that the cast mostly does interesting things with what they've been given, I really hope I don't stumble across a more singularly misconceived film for the rest of 2013.
Reviews in this series
The Purge (DeMonaco, 2013)
The Purge: Anarchy (DeMonaco, 2014)
The Purge: Election Year (DeMonaco, 2016)