I’ve sat here for fifteen minutes trying to come up with a way to start my review of James DeMonaco’s film "The Purge." It’s not that I don’t know how to describe the plot. It’s not that I don’t have very distinct feelings about the film. It’s that I don’t know where to actually start in talking about it.
The main conceit of the film is a bit of a stretch so before you even go into the film, you already need to suspend disbelief. The year is 2022 and the country’s "new founding fathers" have instituted a national holiday known as The Purge. This is a day where, for 12 hours, all emergency services are suspended and the general population is encouraged to let our all their frustration and rage by committing crime and/or any act of violence without fear of prosecution.
The only people exempt are government officials. Other than that, anyone is fair game and murder is okey-dokey. As a result of this event, crime during the rest of the year is almost non-existent, people are thriving and unemployment is at 1 percent. America is back on top because we allow people to purge themselves of all the stressors that they build up throughout the year. Apparently, allowing everyone a week-long vacation wouldn’t have been a better option. Instead, rape, murder and torture are a better cure.
Somehow Americans have accepted this idea and look forward to it and/or hunker down for twelve hours and hope they don’t get bumped off. People watch as their neighbors get their knives sharpened or walk the streets with rifles, ready to "purge" because, as they say, it is their "right."
The film opens with security images of past "purges" where random innocent people get beaten and murdered. I’m not sure if these are fake or actual security feeds from real crimes, but regardless, we begin the film on a queasy note. Then, we meet James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) who sells security systems (mainly to protect people from purgers) and who is so successful he has put a large addition onto his home located in an upscale gated community.
His neighbors, though, aren’t as fond of his home. You see, they all bought the security system from him and feel he is using their money to rub it in their faces. Really? He’s saving your asses and you’re pissed because your house isn’t as big as his? Ugh. But clearly, the filmmakers are trying to make a point.
Anyway, James has a loving wife Mary ("Game of Thrones" Lena Headey), a moody daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and an odd son Charlie (Max Burkholder) who has a strange medical condition that makes him check his breathing and heart rate every hour. As 7 p.m. rolls around -- the beginning of The Purge -- the family gets prepared by arming their security system, which basically lowers thick metal barricades over every door and window.
They can then watch the goings on in their neighborhood with a number of security cameras that display on large TVs in what appears to be a Purge room. They can also watch live feed from "Purge events" around the country. (So not only is it a way to get rid of your rage, but The Purge has become a form of entertainment that everyone is totally okay with.)
Long story short, poor Max isn’t on board with The Purge and when a black man (Edwin Hodge) calls for help in the street, Max disarms the security system so the man can get to safety. But alas, the mysterious man disappears inside the cavernous house while a group of Purgers in creepy masks show up at their door demanding they give the "swine" back to them so they can do their purging.
You see, the black man is homeless (and apparently a veteran as evidenced by dog tags) and the homeless are the usual victims of the purge as they don’t contribute to society and have no way of protecting themselves. The same with the poor. See where this is going? So what will our family do? Give the guy up? Save him? Defend themselves?
There are a few other plot points that are revealed (the security system isn’t toooootally fail-safe) and the violence will start to be amped up, so if you have the stomach for this sort of thing, you’ll get what you expect. The problem is that there are a hundred and one questions about the plot that will distract you from enjoying the film, if enjoying something like this is actually an option.
Here we go: why is unemployment at 1 percent, yet there seems to be a plethora of homeless people for the rich to purge every single year? Just because people can purge their frustrations, why would unemployment be low? When given this option, would everyone become rapists and murderers? Did morality collapse when the New Founding Fathers took over? Who ARE the New Founding Fathers? Why are people praying to them and what is their political affiliation? What happens when The Purge is over and businesses are wiped out due to theft and crime? How long does it take to clean up the mess? When people say they plan on going to kill their boss during the purge, why is everyone like "eh, whatever, I just hope I survive the night." If people are afraid of dying, why don’t they just travel out of the country when The Purge happens?
As the plot kicks we wonder other things: What is Max’s mystery illness and why is it never brought up again? Why did the filmmakers make the first person the purgers go after a black man? Aren’t white people homeless too? Did they not think that people would be uncomfortable watching white people chase after a black man they call "swine" when race is never even a plot point?
Why is the black man a veteran if crime is down? Are we still warring with other countries? Do other countries do The Purge or just America? What do other countries think of The Purge? Why do people have to put purple flowers outside their homes in support of the Purge? What happens if they don’t?
Is this a movie that is pro-gun? Because as soon as the family says "screw it! We’re defending ourselves!" it seems the filmmakers want us to be fist-pumping and cheering. But then when we see civilians blowing each other away for sport, is it anti-gun? The politics of the film are very muddy here and ultimately the point and theme of the film is lost in the dark just like the characters.
As entertainment, the film suffers in that the set-up is icky, the morals of the characters are suspect, so watching people blow each other away even in defense of themselves is just, well, icky. There came a point where you didn’t feel entertained anymore, you felt queasy. Especially when it seemed the filmmakers wanted to rile you up and get you cheering for people to kill each other.
Sure, you want the "good guys" to beat the "bad guys" but knowing how it all began and what the state of the world is, it just becomes gross. And ultimately, the film seems unnecessary. Without a clear point to be made, there is no satire or bigger message. The message is lost among too many ideas in a film that is nothing more than "The Strangers" set in a bigger house during a 12-hour period where killing people is legal and encouraged.
There is a more interesting movie here. That would be how American came to institute this "holiday," how the announcement was received and what it all means. How do non-rich people prepare for this? How do business owners who depend on their businesses for their livelihood deal with the aftermath?
What about all the damage done to personal property? Is there Purge Insurance? Is anyone actually religious anymore? Isn’t there a "thou shalt not kill" rule for those people? In essence, this could have been the start of a somewhat dystopian thriller in the style of "The Hunger Games" where all sides are shown, but with a clear "hey, this isn’t right" endgame.
Instead, we get a blood-splattered mess of an idea that makes you want to take a shower after. Violent thrillers can be fun if done well and if there is some sort of release for the audience. Here, you just kind of walk out depressed and hopeful that some easily influenced morons won’t go about trying to start their own self-proclaimed "Purge Days."