I was of two minds regarding The Purge, the new thriller flick about people in an idyllic future who endure one night a year where all law is suspended. If it were predominately science-fiction, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see a movie with such an amazingly stupid premise. But as a horror flick, it had a lot of potential, since the premise is barely significant against the execution.
And I nailed it, which I guess is some comfort, given that the movie is a really fine action/horror/thriller stuffed into the most preposterous and ill-considered science-fiction premise since In Time.
As a result, the Boy and I were somewhat split, with him really liking it (better able to overlook the silliness) and me thinking it collapsed at a couple of points under its own absurdities.
The good stuff is really quite good. Ethan Hawk plays James, a well-to-do suburbanite who sells defense systems for The Purge, including discovering on the day of The Purge that he’s the #1 sales guy at his company. The movie avoids making him a villain, or even much of a jerk, except insofar as the whole system is corrupt and he’s part of it.
Lena Heady plays his wife, Mary, and she does more acting in the first fifteen minutes than everyone else combined. Not, like, BIG acting, just that she goes from being the concerned mother/beleaguered wife/concerned mother within just a few beats, and her carriage and demeanor and speech all changes slightly depending on whom she’s interacting with. She ends up showing a lot of range by the time the movie’s out.
Adelaide Kane plays Zoey, the bitchy teen daughter with the bad boy boyfriend who sneaks around to see her behind the folks’ back, and who can’t get enough busting her dad’s chops.
The son, Charlie, is played by Max Burkholder who recalls a young Christina Ricci. (I say this without snark; there’s a similar dark complexion and roundness to the face.) Charlie is the one who has the most doubts about the whole affair, and who endangers the family by letting in someone being hunted by group of Purge maniacs.
So, these relationships are well done and not portrayed cartoonishly. This is good.
There were a lot of ways this could have gone, and the movie doesn’t always take the unexpected way out, but there were a few good twists all through. Also, in the more by-the-numbers part of the movie, there is a great deal of suspense, mixed in with some jump scares, and a truly fine fight scene that impressed both The Boy and I.
In other words, The Purge doesn’t pick a technique or style and stick with it: It switches from dystopia to haunted-house to home-invasion, and so on, in a manner that keeps the proceedings feeling fresh.
The problem is that when it switches into sci-fi dystopia, it’s not just silly, it’s stupid and really virulently anti-American in a way only a Chomsky fan could love.
The premise is that ten years in the future “The New Founding Fathers” have instituted this purge and it made the country a dramatically better place. There’s no crime, except this one night. Unemployment is 1%. Poverty is eliminated. All at the cost of this one night.
Well, much like Minority Report or Demolition Man, if we’re to believe the narrative, that’s a pretty good tradeoff, even though the movie clearly wants us to eschew the premise by telling us that “the poor” suffer the most on this night because they can’t afford protection.
Well, wait, did this eliminate poverty or not?
And if you asked poor people if they could live their lives unharassed for 364.5 days out of the year in exchange for having to defend themselves for twelve hours, would they not agree? Hell, everyone would.
Of course, this is silliness. A substantial portion of crime is poor impulse control. Both short term, as in wanting to kick someone’s ass who badly needs it, and long term, as in not planning ahead for one’s needs and having to find shortcuts to get out of messes.
The follow-through is also dumb: If you know that one night a year, everything goes, do you build yourself an entirely defensive structure (as they do in this movie) or do you get some serious ordnance to take out anyone who threatens you? Nothing in this defense system is electrified, fortified with guns or explosives, no boiling oil nor even crenels from which to shoot the variety of guns the family owns.
Also, it’s clear that The Founding Fathers are some sort of nod at the Tea Party. The Emergency Broadcast System actually ends with something like “May God be with us all.” Right.
And the MacGuffin in this film is a homeless guy. But, as I pointed out to The Boy as the movie showed B-roll of The Purging, all those people rioting and killing? They all gotta be at work the next day! (1% unemployment!)
And who the Hell manages to be homeless in a world with 1% unemployment. I mean, homeless, and also clean, well-spoken and ethical, as the guy turns out to be.
The villains are, of course, rich people. All of them. They’re all villainous and they’re all rich. There’s not even a middle class bad guy in the lot. And poor people are only victims, never perpetrators in this imagining.
On the one hand, you want to give writer/director James DeMonaco for recognizing that you can’t completely will away people’s dark sides, no matter how cheerfully the government decrees it to be so. (Though as I’ve mentioned, the very acknowledgement underscores the fact that the premise is stupid.)
But on the other hand, it’s gross bigotry to suggest that pretty much ALL rich people would engage in violence if they had a free pass. (Violence, as I’ve noted many times, is not like sex. It’s seldom very much fun, it’s messy, it’s dangerous and people aren’t really all that inclined to be violent.)
Sometimes this failure to grasp basic human nature, this ham-handed demonization of The Other (even though you know DeMonaco is rich by 99% of the population’s standards) results in some unintentional comedy. (The audience laughed. Loudly.)
Tough time recommending it just as is. (Note that some critics felt it wasn’t preachy ENOUGH.)
And, as noted, this is a rip off of an episode of the original “Star Trek” series, “Return of the Archons”. But there, a computer was mind-controlling everyone. Eh. I’d have a hard time recommending that episode, too.