If all crimes became legal for a twelve-hour period, would you commit one? Or ten? Which crime would you commit? Most importantly, would you be able to live with a clear conscience after committing that crime? This is the premise of The Purge, a movie that seeks to explore the human condition by creating a world in which people are allowed to indulge “their beast,” as the film puts it, for a twelve-hour period, once a year under the guise that this annual purge is the best way to reduce overall crime and maintain order. Unfortunately, the film fails to even scratch the surface of an otherwise interesting question, delivering a relatively vacant film with zero insight into our “condition.”
The film is set in the United States in the very near future of 2022, announcing that crime is almost non-existent, unemployment is at 1%, and the economy is flourishing after the “new founding fathers” took over and devised the annual Purge. As a further bit of set-up, we are treated to seemingly real video footage of various acts of murder (shootings, stabbings, beatings) that look a little too real for comfort. It’s a good way to begin the film, but exposes the first big problem with the film – apparently, murder is the only crime committed during the purge. I understand that murder is sexy for film purposes, but most humans aren’t the killing type, regardless of whether it is legal or not. To believe that the majority of people are capable of murdering (mostly) indiscriminately, and keep that sociopathy bottled up for 364 ½ days, is the same as believing a unicorn will come flying out of one’s ass every Sunday. This film could have been much more interesting and realistic had they included other crimes simply because they are much more likely to occur. You may not be willing to kill someone, or even attack another person, but I’m guessing more than a few of us could live with looting a Best Buy once a year (though, aren’t we almost at that point every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving?).
This brings me to problem number two with what the film is asking us to believe – the economic benefit of the Purge. It’s a very safe assumption that much of the crime being committed is theft. Given twelve hours for people to run rampant, how many banks, grocery stores, electronics stores, etc., are going to be picked clean? We’re not talking a single town or city here; we’re talking the entire nation. At the very least, doesn’t everybody own a new car by the next day? If you knew you could get all of this stuff for free once a year (food and regular consumables notwithstanding), why would anyone bother purchasing it? Even sillier is the 1% unemployment number they casually toss out. Considering how many businesses would get looted, coupled with the loss of employees being murdered, the economy would probably crash over night simply due to the number of businesses that could not survive the Purge. I know I’m straying from the review some here, but the film went out its way to give us specifics for why the Purge is a good thing. They should have just left it at the positives of reduced crime and none of these questions would have arisen.
Anyway, the film centers around James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) and his family. James is a security system salesman, specializing in high-end systems for rich folk living in gated communities, like himself. His family is typical Hollywood fantasy – consisting of the ever-devoted and loving wife Mary (Lena Headey), the hormone ridden and defiant teenaged daughter Zoe (Adelaide Kane), and the geeky, extra-intelligent, and pale son Charlie (Max Burkholder). James is the ever-positive father who forces his family to discuss their day at the dinner table every night and embraces the Purge like a good citizen, which is probably motivation enough for his family to purge him. Alas, they do not.
As the Purge sirens blare and the emergency broadcast system declares its annual message of Purge rules, James engages the “state-of-the-art” security system that he has sold to everyone in the neighborhood, including himself. The system consists of cameras and pieces of steel that cover every window and door – and that’s it. I thought this was going to be the main focus of the story – that the system turns out to be worthless and the creepy people in masks that you see in the previews are out for revenge. As we find out, the system really is basically worthless, as the steel is easily removed by yanking on it with a truck, but this isn’t what motivates those masked murders. As a matter of fact, those masked murderers aren’t even his neighbors; they are random students from an elite college murdering random homeless people. Yes – I was confused too.
While viewing the monitors, Max observers a bloody man running down the street yelling for help. In a fit of humanity and stupidity, he raises the steel door and the man makes it in the house just before James closes the door. At the same time, Zoe’s forbidden older boyfriend (who snuck in the house prior to lockdown) decides he is going to confront James to discuss their relationship. You don’t need a spoiler alert to know what happens next. Shortly thereafter, the masked psychos show up and demand that James give them the man they saved or they will “easily” defeat the security system (with the afore mentioned trucks) and kill them all. Will James do it or will his conscience ridden family shame him into condemning them all to a really long and potentially fatal night? I’m fairly certain I already told you.
This gets at the crux of the problem with this movie – everything seems to be improvised and nobody has any real motivation for what they are doing or who they are killing. The masked vigilantes want to kill the man because he is “homeless swine” and will kill the Sandins simply for denying them the right to “cleanse themselves through the Purge.” The movie becomes even more muddled when the neighbors show up to kill the Sandins simply because “they saw an opportunity” and because “they are tired of the Sandins flaunting their success in their faces.” Nevermind that the neighbors live in the same opulent neighborhood and even give them cookies just before lockdown. The idea that they voluntarily bought security systems is apparently a capital offense for James.
But, do we even care what happens to the Sandins? Due to the film’s 85 minute running time, there isn’t any time given to making us care about them. All we’re given is that they are innocent bystanders who just want to make it through the night without being bothered and, maybe, Zoe wants to lose her virginity. Plus, the man they save is so random, the closest he is given to a name is dog tags hanging around his neck. Given that the Purge is supposed to be a really good thing, it’s arguable that we should be rooting against the Sandins or at least Ethan Hawke for delivering a performance straight out of the Jaden Smith school of “I’m an actor, so can you.”
Basically, it comes down to the writers having no idea what they wanted the movie to be or simply not caring. The Purge itself is relegated to background noise and the only motivation for people to kill. Anything would have been more interesting. Any of the murders introduced could have been given more motivation than a quasi-religious claim of rites or jealousy over an addition to a house. James should have been a lightning rod for retribution owing to screwing over his neighbors, or anyone for that matter, rather than having the bad luck of having a son with some compassion. But, most of all, we should have gotten more insight into the types of people embracing the Purge, even to the point of making the crazy masked folks the main characters and having some lesson learned following their deaths. The only lesson we learned was that Best Buy can rest easy knowing that people are more interested in bloodlust than stealing a 92-inch plasma screen TV.
Rating: Ask for all but a dollar back. Everything but the premise is worthless.