by Coop Cooper
The story takes place in near future America that is now virtually crime and poverty free. The credit for this golden age is given to the annual “Purge” in which for one 12 hour period out of the year, all crime – including murder – is legal. This cathartic moral hiatus allows citizens to release pent up rage, frustration and perceived revenge upon society so that the survivors might live the rest of the year in peace. Security salesman James Sandlin (Ethan Hawke) provides protection systems for his entire neighborhood and with his business booming, he is at ease with the annual event, especially since the system on his house is top-notch. His wife (Lena Heady), son and daughter become less at ease as the beginning of the Purge grows closer. When James’ naïve son witnesses a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) being chased by a bloodthirsty mob, he puts his entire family at risk to let him in. The dangerous gang tears through the house’s security measures to get at them while James and his family fight to survive the night.
It’s a preposterous, yet fascinatingly simple premise that begs for analysis on a ‘what would you do in this situation?’ kind of level. It certainly got people talking and this is precisely why it was such a big hit at the box office this past weekend, easily recouping its 3 million-dollar budget with a 36.4 million dollar opening haul. I can already tell it’s going to be a hit in Europe who already has a huge market for the ‘home invasion horror’ film market and relishes open critiques on the culture of the U.S. It will also continue to do well on video, spawning multiple sequels. The franchise has potential and this first effort is watchable if you can forgive its glaring flaws and ham-fisted agenda.
Although his concept is far-fetched, it joins some other improbable-yet-interesting dystopian films that have achieved cult status in the past decade… The action-filled “Equilibrium” employed the unlikely scenario that humans would submit to having their emotions removed in order to achieve peace. “In Time” somehow made the human lifespan a form of currency and “Gamer” let spoiled rich kids legally control prisoners in real-life video game death matches. In “Repo Men” artificial organ repossessors took away people’s vital parts when they failed to pay the exorbitant interest. As ridiculous as these scenarios are, they are timely commentaries on sociopolitical issues such as healthcare, entertainment ethics, equality, human rights, government overreach, etc… Realistic? No. Relevant? Definitely.
Most of these types of films are benign warnings to avoid extreme solutions to societal problems. The danger is that some of them can come across as partisan propaganda and creators of “The Purge” made their intentions very clear in this regard. Writer/director James DeMonaco publicly stated in interviews that this film was his personal assault on the National Rifle Association whom he apparently believes could or would empower such an abominable situation. His sentiment seems a bit hypocritical considering the ‘good guys’ in the story could never survive such a brutal home invasion if it weren’t for their own legal collection of guns which they use to great effect.
There is also an obvious Tea Party stereotype jab as the ‘bad guys’ in the film incessantly spout pro-patriotic rhetoric that killing people in the Purge is good for the country as it wipes out the ‘scum’ (read: poor, minority) and relieves overpopulation while satiating natural human bloodlust. Of course the message goes way over the top into slapstick when these characters call what they are doing a ‘constitutional right’ as they reveal racism and envy are their only true motives for participating in the carnage.
I actually think the film could have been a more apt allegory for what’s going on in Syria, Sudan and other countries where human life is cheap and genocide is a daily occurrence. Connecting the film to those atrocities would result in a more concrete analogy showing how people will go to horrific lengths to preserve power or defend what they think is right, but suddenly discover the error of their ways at the last moment when they find themselves at the mercy of a loaded gun. “Children of Men” did this spectacularly. “The Purge” did not, but I still think it has the potential to spawn better-written, more competent sequels.
The plot is riddled with cliches: The lead characters get separated in laughable plot-servicing ways and they seem painfully unfamiliar with their own house and its weak spots/hiding places. They constantly put their life in jeopardy by contemplating morality when they should be shooting, hiding or looking for hidden threats. All of the main characters at some point in the story are saved by a miraculous, last second reprieve and so much of the payoff is telegraphed within the first 20 minutes of the story (those smiling neighbors are a little “too nice” don’t you think?). Rookie mistakes by a veteran writer.
Since sequels to “The Purge” are now inevitable, I expect to see this idea play out with a bigger budget and on a larger scale which might be more satisfying. With a concept this easy, the sequels could write themselves and if they stayed away from cliches and poorly thought-out political statements, it might have legs.
Rating: 2 and 1/2 out of 5 stars