“The Purge” starts with an outrageous but intriguing premise: what if the society temporarily allows killings as a way of ventilating the social anger/resentment pressed inside its individuals? I can think of at least five or six implausible aspects of this premise, but it certainly has the potentials for exploring the dark sides of human nature and human society, and I could see several nice possibilities to be explored during its first 10 minutes. Outrageous, but it could be as interesting as, say, Shirley Jackson’s infamous short story “The Lottery”.
However, despite its promising beginning, “The Purge” sadly devolves into a run-of-the-mill thriller involved with home invasion and predictable moral questions, and it is not even a good one. The screenplay is saddled with flat characterization and bland dialogues packed with clichés, and it goes even worse as every character is mired in lots of unbelievable contrivances and startling stupidity. This is one of those movies where characters move around alone in the dark when they really should move or stick together to find any solution to get out of their perilous situation, and then there comes more idiocy to make your head shake in disbelief while it approaches to its ludicrous third act without any suspense or plausibility.
And the movie does not even try much to make its background at least temporarily plausible. Yes, we are told during the prologue that the US government finally succeeds in restoring its economy and society through the annual social event called “The Purge”, but the movie does not tell us enough about how American people came to accept such a terrible event within a short period(it is only 2022 in the movie) or how the resulting social improvement can be achieved so easily and quickly like that. For example, it is said in the movie that the murder rate becomes almost zero thanks to this murderous annual romp of human savageness, but it somehow overlooks that there are many other kinds of murder besides the one fueled by our animalistic side. Sure, many people indeed get killed everyday due to our biological aggressiveness, but haven’t we heard about those cold, heartless murders by gang organizations? Can such crimes and other ‘rational’ crimes be possibly suppressed by the Purge?
The movie focuses on one affluent suburban family who happen to have one tough night they will never forget. It is March 22th, the day of the Purge, and everyone in the neighborhood is ready for the extremely dangerous night to come as James Sandin(Ethan Hawke) is returning to his house. He is confident that he and his family will go through the Purge safely as usual; he is a rich and successful salesman who has sold many security equipments to his dear neighbours, and his house is certainly equipped well with a dependable security system which will instantly protect the house from any serious threats as soon as the Purge begins.
We come to learn a bit about how the Purge will be initiated, progressed, and then terminated. It will be started precisely on PM 7:00 in the evening, and all the police stations, fire departments, and hospitals will be out of reach for the next 12 hours. While putting some restriction on weapons(the movie does not explain well the reason behind it, by the way), the government guarantees that no one will get arrested or charged no matter how many people he kills, and some of James’ neighbors are already preparing to kill even before the Purge officially begins.
While the Sandins and other affluent families can afford to protect themselves with their money, most of the lower class people have nothing to protect themselves, and they naturally become the targets to be killed by others. You may see some social allegory on how the weak is brutalized by the strong, but the movie does not pay attention much to a certain stranger crying for help in front of the Sandins’ house. He is merely a plot device to bring the peril into the story(played by Edwin Hodge, this character is just named ‘Bloody Stranger’ in the end credit), and the movie sometimes seems to forget about him unless he is necessary for the plot progress.
His plea could have been ignored, but James’ son Charlie(Max Burkholder) cannot ignore this desperate guy for some humanitarian reason or whatsoever. He opens the front door to let him in the house, and, what do you know, he and his family soon find that a group of mobs wearing freaky mask surround the house(don’t ask me why they have to wear mask), and their psychopathic leader(played by Rhys Wakefield, this character is just named ‘Polite Leader’ in the end credit) demands that James should surrender that poor stranger to them because he is a ‘pig’ to be killed in their Purge ritual. This character is so over-the-top on psychotic mode that you cannot possibly miss the racist aspect of this despicably evil character; he looks like a rich white fraternity boy while Bloody Stranger is a black guy from some poor neighborhood, so you can easily guess the point even before it is blatantly made by the hateful lines viciously and politely uttered by Polite Leader.
This still looks a bit like a good thriller setting at least, but then the movie becomes more hopeless to my disappointment. The house becomes dark when electricity is cut off(has it ever occurred to them that leaving the lights on is more strategically advantageous to them?), and the camera busily goes around the characters without generating any tension, and the movie drones on as the time is running out for them. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, who plays James’ wife, are good performers, but there are not many things they can do for their bland characters, and the same thing can be said about Max Burkholder and Adelaide Kane, who are also stuck with bad dialogues and sketchy characterization.
The director/writer James DeMonaco previously wrote the screenplay for “Assault on Precinct 13”(2005), which was a good remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 film. That movie also started its story with a simple premise and broad characterization within its surrounded space, but the story was handled well, and its characters were distinctive, if not complex, enough to hold our attention.
“The Purge” is an utter failure in comparison because of its lackluster story and thin characterization, and I only saw its glaring flaws rather than enjoying it – and I thought of several movies better than this dismal result. As soon as the movie was over, my interest was quickly moved to the 1976 version and 2005 version of “Assault on Precinct 13”, and I quickly forgot my disappointed reaction with “The Purge”. Believe me, you will have a better time with either of them.