The concept behind The Purge, written and directed by DeMonaco, is both unsettling and fantastic. It sparks real conversation before you even go see the movie. Questions about security and race and class. How much would YOU indulge in an annual, government-sanctioned twelve hour “cleansing” of your more dangerously anti-social impulses? And who does this purge actually benefit? What about those who may not want to participate in something so barbaric yet lack the resources to protect themselves from the onslaught? And how quickly does it take for society to get back to normal after twelve hours of murder and mayhem? You don’t have to go back to work the very next day, do you? Are there any good “You’ve Survived the Purge” sales at Kohls?
The problem with the movie is that it’s either afraid to confront all of the provocative issues it raises, or it’s just not all that interested in them. The movie finds a way of sidestepping all the potential land mines by having the villains be people who wouldn’t stir feelings of ambiguity in the audience.
The villains are people that EVERYBODY despises: rich ivy-league types (led by Rhys Wakefield, prep school jacket included) who don’t seem like they’re venting off steam, but are just using it as an excuse to exercise some sort of latent sociopathic rage against everyone they believe they are “better” than and clothing it in pop-Nietzschean philosophy. And in this case, they’re hunting down a homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who had the unmitigated GALL to defend himself against this psycho preppy posse; he didn’t lie down and take his termination like the “dredge of society” they deem him to be.
He finds sanctuary in the “secured” home of the Sandin family (Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder and Adalaide Kane), whose house is already breached before the “purge” even begins, but I won’t get into that now. Needless to say, the home comes under siege and the family, whose husband sells the security system protecting the house, by the way, discovers how flimsy the notion of security is when you’re under attack by people more determined than you.
What surprised me about The Purge, in the midst of all these conflicting notions, is its lack of ambiguity. That’s not to say the characters don’t have less-than-admirable, knee jerk reactions at certain moments done in the name of self-preservation, but eventually they fall into the roles of conventional “good guy” and “bad guy.”
What surprised me even more is how lacking in suspense the movie is. The Purge turns into a conventional home invasion movie, and not a very good one. If DeMonaco wanted to make a home invasion movie that plays with the ideas it raises, it could’ve taken the route Michael Haneke did with Funny Games (either the German original or his English language remake.)
But The Purge isn’t that ambitious, it just wants to give the audience a thrill or two. A better home invasion movie is 2008’s The Strangers by writer-director Bryan Bertino. That movie had no ideas whatsoever. In fact, its very lack of a governing idea is what makes it terrifying; it latches onto a greater sense of existential dread by giving us a couple being tormented not as a punishment for what they did or didn’t do, but because they just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The best way to experience The Purge is to read everything you can about it, get some friends together, have a few drinks, than just talk. Be open and honest. But you don’t have to see the movie; it could’ve worked harder to be more worthy of the debate it inspires.