Directed by James DeMonaco, Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady
This is a stupid movie. There’s no way around it. Taking an idea as absurd as an annual half-day in which all crime is legal and playing it completely straight does not work and probably never could work. There are many, many flaws with the concept of a Purge, in theory, in practice, in the logic of the real world, and in the internal logic of the movie’s world. Obviously many people have pointed out that there’s no way that neighbors and coworkers could coexist as a society after a Purge. These people simply could not live together after trying to kill each other. And I wouldn’t be the first person to point out how crazy the assumption that this Purge would lower crime rates is. Most murders aren’t planned anymore than a day in advance, terrorists would never play by rules that the world of the film deems so patriotic, mental illnesses are completely non-existent in this universe, and the film never actually shows any crime other than murder, which isn’t even close to the most common crime and would not drastically change crime rates in any way. But there are also more subtle problems to focus on. The broadcasting system in the movie says that politicians of a certain class and weapons of a certain class are completely off-limits. How would this rule be enforced? How is it practical to turn off all emergency services? Making crimes legal is different from banning emergency services. Even if I accept the argument that the Purge is just an excuse to take out the poor, what if a very wealthy man has a heart attack, or a wealthy neighborhood gets caught in a forest fire? Services aren’t running, so rich people will still die of non-Purge natural causes. The film talks about the new 1% unemployment like it shows how great society would be. While 1% unemployment is better than the 10% that America hovered around a few years ago, it’s not necessarily a good thing. If unemployment is that low, than no new jobs are being created, and no new industries are being explored. The obvious Purge counter “let’s just vacation in Canada for a day” is never addressed. The script provides no reason why anybody who doesn’t want to purge would stay in America. There is also no reason or explanation for why the Purge exists at all. What happened in the 4 years between the release of this film in 2013 and the film’s present date in 2017 that could have provoked the creation of a murdering festival? Even if what the writes thought of didn’t totally make sense, giving the viewers something would have helped.
The many, many conceptual failures aside, “The Purge” is a bad movie, through and through. None of the above unanswered questions actually matter, because this is a very basic home invasion horror/thriller that doesn’t take advantage of its out-there premise to do anything unique or special. The entire movie is the main family holed up in their house as various people enter and try to kill them. The Sandin family (Hawke and Heady with a young son and a high school daughter) accept a homeless man into their house, and when a group of affluent purgers comes knocking on their door, the Sandin’s are forced to find the man and send him outside to be killed, or the purgers will come for Ethan Hawke. There was potential for some strong character drama, especially revolving around the homeless man and the loss of humanity involved in sending out a human being as a tribute, but again, the film is too poorly made to take advantage of it. Dialogue is often unnatural, especially when it’s coming from the leader of the purgers, who speaks exclusively in metaphors and Shakespearean English as he makes death threats. I understand that emotions are diluted in this world because of all of the killing happening around the characters, but none of these people even come close to sounding or acting like real people would.
My favorite part of the movie is the performance of Rhys Wakefield as the leader of the purging villains, not because it is good, but because, in a movie made up of entirely bad actors and performances, he stands out as being so ludicrously bad that his parts become very entertaining. His speech pattern (in which he will stop all sentences about two third of the way through, smile, and smugly deliver the last third) and physical acting (kissing the people that he kills on the forehead as he quiets their lips) are not “good” in any kind of a technical way, but he is the only actor who seems to be in on the joke. This is a B-Movie thriller, and Wakefield is hilariously self-aware of that fact. I’d rather be watching him than the wooden Lena Heady, who somehow manages to plead for her children’s lives without emoting, or Ethan Hawke, who does his usual B-Movie thriller shtick, about on the same quality as “Regression” or “Good Kill”. It’s not bad, but he knows that it’s not serious acting.
As a straight thriller, it’s not much better. “The Purge” is very reliant on jump scares, fast cuts, and dark lighting. There’s one main physical fight scene, between Hawke and two purgers near a billiards table, and it cuts so fast and keeps the camera so close to the actors faces that the fighting becomes incomprehensible. The dark lighting exists for the entire film, and at some points it is hard to see. Maybe it was a stylistic choice, but based on the budget and production history, I can only think that the shooting team was too cheap to light a scene properly. The jumps are obnoxious and constant. I am not opposed to the idea of having jump scares. I understand why they are necessary and they can be effective if they are handled right. But I am inherently opposed to the very loud jump noises that are frequently used. Natural noise is far more frightening than silly jump sounds made in a studio lab. “The Purge” uses that repetitive formula, where the score drains and swells and drains and swells as characters walk around dark hallways. It gets tiresome by the end.
The best thing that I can possibly say about “The Purge”, which is an insult in itself, is that it is mercifully brief. Not counting credits, the film is just under 80 minutes long. You sit through what feels like a first act, before the invaders break into the home, only to realize that there is now only half an hour left for the basic premise of the movie to happen. It probably bothers a lot of people how little of “The Purge” is spent on violent purging, but for me, it helped make the film never wear out its welcome. It doesn’t drag, it doesn’t bore, it doesn’t lose focus, and it doesn’t get too repetitive, even with the overused jump moments. I cared enough to finish it, and never once asked myself how much longer it was. This is definitely a bad movie, and I do dislike it enough to call it one of the worst wide-released horror movies of the past few years, but it is at least bad in a watchable way. If that sounds like a fun time to you, it probably is.