The Purge

by Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison

EXPECTATIONS: The rather silly premise for The Purge is plastered all over the posters in the film's tagline: "One night a year, all crime is legal." Assuming this film isn't about a solid twelve-hour stint of dumb kids illegally downloading every movie they can get their hands on, it will probably be a decline-of-civilisation thriller in which a rich, suburban family is proven to be evil at the core while tough street-gang members reveal hearts of gold, or something equally short-sighted and easy. There's a very good chance, however, that this film will go to some very grim and unpleasant places if they really run with the idea.

REALITY: As it turns out, "grim and unpleasant" isn't really part of this film's agenda. What we have here is essentially a siege movie with a darkly comic twist that just never bothers to fully explore its central idea. Apparently inspired by the events that took place last February in a Florida gated community, in which neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, The Purge posits the case that - given the absolute assurance of zero retribution - rich, white suburbanites would gladly spend an evening seeking out and murdering poor black folk just to vent their hatred.

Waiting for his Cloud Atlas blu ray to show up in the mail, just like the rest of us.

A political party known as The New Founding Fathers introduces "Purge Night," an annual holiday in which all crime - including murder - is legal for twelve hours between 7 P.M. and 7 A.M. Security specialist James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has recently become very rich by selling elaborate lock-down systems to his not-quite-as-rich neighbours, and he plans on spending his Purge Night locked up securely with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two kids Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). During the night, a poor, wounded, homeless black war veteran (Edwin Hodge) wanders into the street, and Charlie lets him in. This prompts a gang of youths in college blazers and weird masks (led by Rhys Wakefield) to surround the house and threaten to break in and kill everyone if the Sandins don't turn the homeless man over to them.

This is where things get grimy, as the Sandins are forced to decide what to do with the man when they can literally get away with anything. Fundamentally, that's not a bad idea for a film to explore, and the scene in which the Sandins find the man and decide what to do with him is one of only two interesting scenarios presented in the film. It is, however, exactly as easy and short-sighted as I had anticipated. Could they have done anything to make this poor, black, homeless, wounded war veteran who is fighting for survival in a hostile environment any more of a tragically noble figure? He even seems to be completely incapable of anger or revenge; he's the perfect cyborg soldier always willing to sacrifice for the greater good (the greater good in this case being two whiny rich kids).

As a siege movie, The Purge could have overcome its shortcomings by presenting us with some suspenseful thrills. However, every time the film wants us to think something bad might happen, the scene is resolved the same way. I don't want to spoil exactly what happens, but by the fourth time it happens you'll be left baffled. Are we supposed to be surprised every time? Learn some new tricks.

Well, it would defeat the purpose otherwise, wouldn't it?

When this film was conceived, I imagine the "rich white people will murder poor black people if they know they can get away with it" idea came before the "all crime is legal for twelve hours" concept. This is why the second idea is given no real exploration at all. The opening scrawl would have us believe that Purge Night has reduced unemployment to 1% and improved the economy massively. Now, you can't just dangle a piece of exposition in front of an audience like that and expect them to not question it.

What writer/director James DeMonaco seems to be suggesting is that all crime is motivated by hatred and a human need for violence and aggression that is satisfied through that hatred. So while our flawless war hero may be homeless and hungry, he would never steal a loaf of bread on Purge Night out of desperation. Ethan Hawke would never consider stealing cable or smoking weed or breeding tortoises without a licence. The only crime that seems to exist in the world of The Purge is murder, and everyone turns into a wide-eyed evangelist while they're doing it.

There are no bank managers emptying their own vaults, there is nobody shown committing massive fraud, there is no visible drunken-driving. It's just a bunch of people with guns shooting each other. What if your idea of "Purging" was to hijack a couple of passenger planes and fly them into skyscrapers? What about paedophiles? Are they basically given a free night to victimise children, perhaps even their own, without a policeman ever asking them about it? Are reddit users taking to the streets to prowl for women on which they can enact their rape fantasies? I don't generally like to play the realism card, but by even presenting the premise, The Purge begs all of these questions and more. The problem is that it isn't really a bad idea for a film, just an unexplored one.

I would certainly have enjoyed this film more if it put aside the moralising about prejudice being the real crime that goes unpunished every day. Ethan Hawke might not be the villain in the traditional sense, but his life is definitely moralised against. He supports Purge Night and, as he says himself, he respects the rights of the people to murder whoever they like, and yet he and his family do not participate. It's a hypocritical show of support because Purge Night allows him to sell fancy security systems that pay for his house extensions and a new yacht (can you even imagine the insurance premiums on this stuff when it's perfectly okay to burn it all down and commit insurance fraud one night a year?), but he doesn't actually agree with the violence and carnage of it all. He views it all in the same light as a party at an annoying neighbour's house. He thinks he's a better class of people than those who partake. People are more complicated than this film wants them to be.

It is in this situation of lawlessness and facilitation that the film takes its one real step toward genuine inspiration, where taking a stand becomes an enforced act of peaceful co-existence. It is in The Purge's final act that we see just where DeMonaco was going with this idea, and it works mostly because of Lena Headey's wearied yet powerful performance. She's certainly more compelling than Ethan Hawke and his bad wig. I'd have gladly watched an entire film with the feel of that one scene, but The Purge gets so bogged down with its half-formed ideas and poorly executed suspense sequences that it just isn't worth the time it takes to get there.

Short-Sighted Moralising1/10
Lazy Suspense "Thrills"0/10
Ethan Hawke4/10
Lena Headey10/10
What About Gay Marriage?Is That Legal On Purge Night?
Overall15/50

MINORITY REPORT: So, on Purge Night, the world kinda just becomes a game of GTA. If the way I play those games is any indication, I would apparently spend the whole night popping in and out of various parked automobiles, then driving them around slowly while listening to the radio. Purge Night is not intended for people like me. - Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider

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