There’s a quote by Daniel C. Dennett that goes “there’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view I hold dear.” I can think of more than a few things I personally like less than those, but it doesn’t stop me from hating a movie that tries to advocate ideals and principles I like to identify with and hold highly and that’s probably front and center as a reason why I hate James DeMonaco’s popular dystopian future The Purge series. All three of them are shamelessly bad arguments for the sort of social ideals I hold dear, largely held up by laughably convoluted and illogical concepts meant for world-building, on top of other dysfunctional elements in its aesthetics or its craft.
But I come to bury those movies one by one and so I must begin by aiming my sights at the very first 2013 film that started it all, The Purge. And its first damning mistake is to base its premise on a very underwhelming smothering of ambition the likes of which you only know to come from two kinds of movies: small-budgeted films that don’t know how to make every cent count and uninspired early works of a still green director. Of which The Purge is both, written and directed by DeMonaco himself (after a career of writing screenplays that include Francis Ford Coppola’s “man grows up to be Robin Williams” horror film Jack and the empty 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13), who would go on to helm all three movies.
DeMonaco’s concept: In the near future, America is run by the shady New Founding Fathers who had instituted a policy shortly after their election calling the Purge. For 12 consecutive hours, all crime is made legal and emergency services are suspended (there are caveats to this, but let’s not make this summary more complex than it is). The purpose behind this is to lower crime and unemployment and fix the diving economy and somehow it works against any real logic. Unemployment is down to 1% and the cities are completely crimeless and the best one can guess is the catharsis of being able to do whatever they want, but man is it a stretch.
Of course, I’m ignoring how the sequel The Purge: Anarchy tries haphazardly to give an answer (partly because it is not a good one) as we’re dealing with the first movie and that’s a very fair trade to the movie in exchange for ignoring how it simply is derivative of the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” or the matter that the concept is simply a long and convoluted set-up for a very unimaginative home invasion thriller.
Yep, in an implied world where a whole city has the right to perform crime, The Purge restrains itself to mostly one setting as though it needed the outside world implication to have these characters play-out a lesser John Carpenter film, but I said I’d ignore that so here I go ignoring that.
I will not ignore that The Purge is a bad home invasion thriller, though. That’s on them.
The home being invaded belongs to the Sandins – patriarch James (Ethan Hawke), matriarch Mary (Lena Headley), their teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and youngest child Charlie (Max Bunkholder). The four of them intend to spend the night holed up in their home fitted with a security system James designed and made a fortune off of selling, but that goes sour by several things: the first being how Charlie lets in an apparently frightened and wounded African-American man (Edwin Hodges) and that gives James a wild goose chase to suffer through in his own home. The second being how Zoey’s boyfriend Henry (Rhys Wakefield) sneaks into the home with the intent of shooting and killing James, quickly dispatched with so easily it’s hard to wonder how that was supposed to have any consequence on the story whatsoever. Zoey clearly doesn’t have to think very long to believe her dad defended his life and his family. Maybe it was just supposed to be a distraction.
Still there’s one more thing we can’t be generous to The Purge and ignore: the fact that both Charlie and Henry have to commit very stupid and illogical actions to propel the plot, even for characters their age (Henry, in any case, is implied to be old enough to put James on edge about him dating Zoey – but I think he’d be much edgier if he were aware of how the movie itself lingers on Zoey during her make-out scene with Henry). And when we set that aside, the movie still has to fill the rest of its 85-minutes (by which point, Henry’s death is around the 30-minute mark) with some uninspired and repetitive shots in the dark blue halls of James searching for their intruder. Nothing in the script is given for Hawke or Headley to imply that they were not given a thankless job on-set and the movie can only move forward when we find out what the intruder was running from:
A gang of preppy Ivy League students, the main leader and mouthpiece being the biggest posterchild for blond white privilege (Tony Oller) stating that if the Sandins don’t surrender their intruder, they will be breaking into the home and murdering all of them. When the Sandins prove unable and unwilling to acquiesce to this request, the students make good on their promise by making little work of James’ security system and the movie begins to actually speed up in its climax, but that climax provides nothing we haven’t seen before from the 70s to 90s and it is abruptly stopped with still a good 10-15 minutes for the movie to crawl through.
Here’s the thing about the movie that irks me most: it swears to be a satire, but two things about it break it before it even has a chance to make its case. The first being that it’s not subtle by any means and we know all the things it is commenting about: the white rich kids killing a scared black man, the willingness of the Sandins to use torture at one point in order to save their own lives, the tribal element of affluency and classism, the injustice of politics and its absolute disinterest in the well-being of its subjects, it’s all there and it’s frankly mostly things that I vehemently agree with. But I can’t say I enjoy the hamfisted delivery of these ideals nor do I think a film is remotely intelligent for just using such a banal premise to deliver those ideals. I can’t imagine that a person would watch The Purge and change their mind on any political matter.
But it also fails as satire because I can’t think of a single damn element of the film that is meant to be… y’know, comic. Save for one line delivery by Headley at the very end of the movie that only comes about from once again a character making a stupid decision and the movie refusing to be aware of how stupid it was. It dedicates itself to making this so dark and solemn and serious that it just doesn’t leave itself breathing space for levity and humor. The lack of subtlety isn’t even a source of humor, it’s a source of mortification where we watch a tied-up man stabbed and shocked over and over again into submission. Every single idea it has is delivered in the most straight-laced manner implying that we have to take things seriously because the Sandins’ lives are in danger, but it can’t have its cake and eat it too. It can’t try to get us fearful for the Sandins’ lives and try to use their plight as the source for some guffaws. It also can’t get us fearful for the Sandins’ lives because by the end of the movie, not a one of them are sympathetic in the slightest and that’s even regarding that there is at least one casualty amongst the family before the night is over.
It also swears it is a horror film, but at least the doll-faced porcelain masks the gang stole from the set of The Strangers are spooky enough to lend it maybe a bit of credence to that claim. Nothing else about works in that order, except to frighten me on the fact that the movie made enough money to spawn a franchise.