The First Purge hits theaters today, and so it seems only fitting to dedicate this entry of Late to the Party to writer/director James DeMonaco’s 2013 thriller The Purge. With four films and an upcoming TV series on the way, I’d like to see what all the fuss is about. So, without further ado…let The Purge review commence.
Half celebration and half anarchy, the franchise contemplates what it would be like if criminal activity (including murder) was legal for one night a year. The theory being it would allow participants to vent their aggression and lower the overall crime rate the rest of the year. And, in this world, it apparently works.
The first film is a modest beginning to the franchise with a confined story that mostly takes place in a rich suburban house on the night of The Purge. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a wealthy security system salesman living in a gated community with wife Mary (Lena Headey) and their two kids. Shortly after the Sandins lock down their house for a quiet night of Purge watching on TV, things quickly go awry.
A homeless stranger manages to disappear in their sprawling home after the their son provides him sanctuary from Purgers. The group of psychopaths lingering outside hold the Sandins responsible for harboring the man, and the family won’t be able to keep them out very long.
One can see the draw of such an intriguing high-concept premise. I normally enjoy claustrophobic, single-location films like Night of the Living Dead, Hidden, A Quiet Place, and 10 Cloverfield Lane, which are microcosms of larger scale events going on outside the walls.
What films like these lack in scale and spectacle they often make up for with compelling characters and tight storytelling. This is where The Purge stumbles. While the premise is interesting, the execution is sadly lacking
First, some positives. As Purge Night draws near, the feeling of anxiety is palpable. Seeing a neighbor sharpening a machete in his backyard right before The Purge commences would make anyone paranoid. The film has a dystopian feel that is contained to one evening, until society returns to normal the next day like waking up from a bad dream.
Many citizens (like James and Mary Sandin) treat Purge Night almost like a twisted New Year’s Eve celebration. They state how it has saved their country, and how much good it’s done. While the concept that the majority of crime stems from aggression is obviously questionable, the premise does work satirically. However, it’s not handled in such a way.
The Purge is essentially used in this film as a framework to create a problematic home-invasion thriller. Characters are often forced to make incredibly dumb decisions to keep the plot moving. The daughter Zoey, for instance, repeatedly runs away from her family for no reason while there’s a potentially dangerous stranger loose in their house. This is the type of movie that will have you often yelling at the screen because of the constant lack of judgment.
An (overly) generous amount of the movie’s runtime is dedicated to characters wandering around the dark hallways of the family’s house. However, we have no idea where people or rooms are in relation to one another. This is likely because much of the film relies on you believing characters could disappear without a trace in a reasonably sized home.
In Don’t Breathe, there were sequences when you could picture where The Blind Man was in the house in relation to his victims because we were given a proper walk-through right from the beginning. We can feel the characters getting closer or farther from danger, which adds to the suspense. The homeless man in The Purge also never seems like a real threat to begin with, so it’s hard to fear for the Sandins when they’re trapped inside with him.
The crew of masked nutjobs outside is led by a politely demented leader played by Rhys Wakefield, who is chewing the scenery with his ear-to-ear grin. He is the only one in the film with any charisma, and a quintessential example of the type of crazy roaming the streets on Purge Night.
Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey don’t have much to work with here. They initially support The Purge until it ultimately comes to their doorstep. Unfortunately, their character arcs end up being superficial at best.
The Sandin family’s jealous neighbors turn on them later in the film showing there’s a little crazy inside everyone. However, their motivation for hating the Sandins is so weak it probably would have been better to give them no motivation at all to better fit the pent up aggression narrative.
I was hoping to be more satisfied by the film’s moral dilemmas, character growths, and overall message, but it all came off rather flat. The Purge often seems to have a lot to say about about human nature, classism, and socio-political agendas. But, by the time the credits roll, it doesn’t feel like it said much of anything at all.
You could tell a lot of gripping tales with such a visceral sandbox to play in. Which is probably why 2013’s The Purge is so frustrating.
The potential is there, and that may be one of the reasons why this franchise is so successful. Plus, having such modest budgets doesn’t hurt. One would hope the sequels expand on the concept, and tell more interesting stories with more interesting characters. Maybe I’ll find out in future editions of Late to the Party. Until next time, Happy Fourth of July!