The central conceit in The Purge is that humans are very much not like humans. In this world, we are all maniacal killers at heart, and would murder indiscriminately, men and women alike, if only it was socially acceptable. This, of course, is not true. There are sociopaths and killers, sure. But, the reason incidents like Aurora and Sandy Hook shake us so fundamentally is that they confront our very ideas of humanity, that most of us are decent enough people just trying to get by, and that even the rude and inconsiderate among us are still not capable of such atrocities that occurred in those shootings.
In The Purge, however, we are all James Holmes and Adam Lanza. Oh, if only murder were legal, just for 12 hours! I would get it out of my system then and be myself again, surely. All this is to say that the film has a mountain to climb right off the bat. It attempts to get us on board by presenting us a family that we would identify with. The Sandins are well-off and live in an affluent community somewhere in America in the year 2022. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) sells home security systems that are only used during the Purge, the 12 hours during the year when anything is legal. I’d give more details about the family, but the film forgot to provide them. So much for giving the audience something to identify with!
Lena Headey plays the mother, Mary Sandin. She is a mother and loves her kids and husband and that’s pretty much it. She’s scared when she needs to be scared and motherly when the script needs that as well. The two kids, Charlie and Zoe Sandin, are generally disgruntled teenagers. Charlie keeps track of his heart rate for some reason and Zoe wishes her ambiguously older boyfriend could be a more open part of her life. No matter.
The day of the Purge, James Sandin has learned that he’s the top-seller of security systems in the district and wishes his neighbors a “safe night” on his way home. Most of his neighbors have bought the security system as well, and they all seem ready to hunker down for the long 12 hours when, apparently, 90% of Americans decide to go and kill each other. I’m not exaggerating that this is what the Purge is all about. An opening sequence shows us gun murder after gun murder, all on security footage. We are reminded by a television doctor that it is in our very nature to kill each other, and that this annual practice serves as a “release” for these murderous instincts, bestowed upon us by the “New Founding Fathers.” Do people rob banks during the purge? Score drugs? Run over the border from Mexico? Doesn’t look like it. The world The Purge inhabits is full of demented thugs, except for the Sandins.
Oh, they openly support the Purge, sure, but their children can tell that they have moral issues with it. After all, if they support it, why don’t they go out and kill people every year? Unlike successful films about a dystopian future, the game of The Purge is so unreasonable as to be almost impossible to represent in humanity. Though it involves supernatural connections, we can at least believe that pre-crime, as presented in Minority Report, would be acceptable to a large section of the American population. If it was possible to see the future, of course we would want to prevent murders before they happen! The ingenuity of that film is nowhere here. It is merely a setup for disgusting terrorism and carnage.
The carnage begins shortly after “lockdown.” The Sandins are behind their metal walls, James and Mary are having some wine, Zoe has gone off to sulk, and Charlie sits in his father’s security suite, watching the neighborhood through a series of cameras. A black man runs down the street, screaming for help, looking for safe haven from an angry mob that’s after him. Charlie, poor sympathetic Charlie, disarms the security system to let the man in. Once James sees this and rushes to his son, the black man (and I call him that because he is the only one in the film) disappears somewhere in the giant home. Oh, and Zoe’s boyfriend is mad that they can’t openly date, so he tries to kill James. Whatever.
The mob chasing the bloody stranger is a group of 20 or so masked prep school kids. (Why are they masked if this is all legal? Probably because director James DeMonaco thought it would look scary.) The only unmasked mob member is the “Polite Stranger,” as he is credited, played by Rhys Wakefield. He explains to the security camera (to which we are fortunately listening), that the man they are harboring is a “homeless swine” and that he must be released to them in short order. If they don’t comply, the mob has some “equipment” on the way that will help them break in and kill not only the swine, but the Sandins as well.
Thus begins a solid 45 minutes of people walking slowly down dark hallways. Occasionally something jumps out and the non-diagetic sound informs us that this is meant to be scary. Why are all the hallways dark? Because Rhys Wakefield has decided to cut the house’s electricity, despite being repeatedly told by James that the homeless man is somewhere in the house and they are looking for him. Logic be damned, says DeMonaco! We need dark hallways in which our vacant characters will walk slowly, to be frightened when things jump out at them!
We are plagued by logistical questions throughout The Purge. If this angry mob are normal citizens 364 days a year, and they murder just to get it out of their systems, will one helpless man really be enough for them? Would they not be better served just leaving the gated community and stopping at the closest Denny’s? With the arsenal these guys are carrying, they could take out dozens of people in a matter of minutes.
Oh! Oh! And I haven’t even started talking about the flaws in the security system yet. This is truly amazing. After Wakefield informs the Sandins that they have equipment on the way to break into their house, Mary seeks reassurance from her husband. “They can’t get in here, right?”
James Sandin’s response is an inexplicable mess about how no security system is perfect and that they could tunnel in or get a battering ram, and on and on. What are we to make of this? Is this a comment on how none of us, with all of our laws and safety precautions, are ever truly safe? Or, is it just a poorly written monologue? The social commentary in The Purge is so haphazard that I’m not sure DeMonaco really means anything at all. The concept resembles nothing that exists in our current lives, that the metaphor is lost on me. I would really like to see a film, even a short film, that deals with this concept as it might exist in reality. DeMonaco seems to think that his characters don’t need to act like actual human beings and that this is okay. Even in the most outlandish of futures, good characters do what we might really do in their position. Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Clive Owen in Children of Men.
The Purge has no time for such trivialities. Its dark hallways lead to its cruel and gruesome conclusion. This is not a fun movie, it is not a thoughtful movie, it is not a scary movie. Much like the Purge itself, I see no reason for it to exist.