One of the dumbest thrillers you’ll ever see, writer-director James DeMonaco’s The Purge starts out with an idiotic, far-fetched premise and continues to stretch our credibility so far that we can barely recall a time when we might have had some credibility to stretch. By the end, I could only throw up my hands and laugh; any other interaction with the film was pointless.
That premise: in the year 2022, unemployment in the US is down to 1%. Crime is at an all-time low. The reason? Once each year, over a 12-hour night, all crime becomes legal during what’s referred to as “the purge.”
That’s right: rape, murder, arson, securities fraud, copyright infringement – everything is allowed over this 12 hours of madness, which somehow lowers the crime rate (the film attempts to explain that people ‘get it out of their system’, or some such nonsense) and also magically solves unemployment (no explanation given).
Now, most movies would spend their entire running times trying to convince you of this idiocy (really – how is this solving crime? Serial killers, bank robbers, and gangs are waiting till the purge each year to take action?) But DeMonaco doesn’t even try to convince us of this reality. Nope, that’s his premise and he’s sticking with it.
So let’s roll with it. As you might imagine, you’ll need an excellent home security system to survive the night (and really, how many people could afford this? We take a look at the suburbs, but the cities must be burnt to the ground…), and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) has made a pretty penny outfitting his neighbors’ homes with top-of-the-line systems.
The Sandin home is no different, and James, along with wife Mary (Lena Headey) and children Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder) hunker down for the night in their steel-gated fortress while watching the outside through video monitors. But Charlie isn’t really down with the us-versus-them purge mentality, so when he sees an injured man (Edwin Hodge) running down the street screaming for help, he lets him in.
Bad idea. The man is being chased by a bloodthirsty gang of polite youths just out for a kill, and they want their prey released. They give the Sandins until reinforcements arrive to turn him over – and then they’ll bust in. James and Mary are more than happy to send this man to his death – but they’ll have to find him first.
(Side note: why do they have to find him? In one of the plot’s finest WTF moments, the daughter’s boyfriend (Tony Oller) – who has snuck into the house pre-purge – pulls a gun on dad, causing all sorts of confusion. Reason? Dad didn’t like the fact that the boyfriend was a few years older than his daughter, so now beau is gonna sort the issue by blowing him away. Hey baby, it’s the purge – I’ll kill your father, and you’ll have to like it.)
It’s the old Rio Bravo formula; a locale under siege, the residents must put up a fight in order to survive. It’s a classic setup, and hard to screw up: there’s natural suspense here, as long as the setting is properly established, and the rules of the game properly explained, with our heroes devising a strategy that will ensure their survival.
Of course, none of that happens in The Purge. Here, the baddies just sit around outside for most of the movie, posing no threat to our family. Then, they immediately bust inside the home; our heroes have taken no precaution, nor formulated a plan, despite plenty of time to do something (what, they don’t have a panic room?)
At this point, writer-director DeMonaco is content to let everyone walk around the house in the dark, with the mask-wearing baddies popping up to yell “boo!” every now and then. As a thriller, this thing has bottomed out.
While the particulars of the premise are incredible, the situation itself should still be able to provide some genuine tension; nut no, everything is squandered. By the time the ‘twist’ ending come along, we’re simply stunned by how stupid and/or senseless these people have behaved to care.
There’s some hints at class, or even race conflict (the injured stranger is black) in The Purge, with the 1% taking to the streets to clean things up for one night per year. It’s all nonsense, of course, and any point the director wanted to make is entirely lost by the end.
Nevertheless, US audiences turned the film into a surprise hit when it opened back in June; The Purge II is already in production.