Horror fans know the problem. So often quality, scary movies are ruined in the third act when it comes time for the carnage to mean something, resolve something. It’s frustrating to watch.
The Purge is surprising in that aspect. The second act is often stupid and repetitive, held together by menace and pacing. But the brilliant set-up and the third act save the film from becoming just another horror underachiever.
The scenario is this: It’s sometime in the near future, and America has changed. Crime and poverty are at all-time lows. The reason for the U.S.’s good fortunes? The Purge. One night a year, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., all crime is legal. Murder, rape, theft, arson. It’s all good. Let it out. Purge those inner demons so that the rest of the year you can be neat, perfect, shiny, productive.
James (Ethan Hawke) takes in big bank on Purge security, helping the rich make sure that they are protected when it counts. He’s a had a good year – top salesman – and, thanks to a new addition, he has the biggest house in the neighborhood to show off his success. He and his family lock themselves in for Purge night … until his son sees a homeless, African-American man running for his life and gives him sanctuary. The masked baddies who were attempting to kill the man show up and tell the family this: To Purge is our right. Give us the vermin who ran from us, and do it before our “tools” get here, or we will rip the house apart and get him and all of you ourselves.
A lot to like. An examination of the violent American psyche taken to new, disturbing heights. A look at class and race and what roles those play, both in personal interactions and on the macro scale. Writer/director James DeMonaco’s flick does a nice job of working these sorts of themes as the action unfolds.
The ending – which I won’t go greatly into, in an attempt to avoid spoilers – searches for humanity in a situation where little is apparent. It’s slightly anti-climactic, but that doesn’t hurt it. The openness, the uncertainty, the lack of explanation or resolution is wise and refreshing. It seems as if it will conclude as a call for hope, yet that hope seems incredibly distant and even futile.
But the journey from set-up to ending, that is where the issues lie in The Purge. The first sign of concern is a very brief cut-away shot of man sharpening his machete in his backyard. Not unusual middle-age Purge activity, except in this very ritzy neighborhood, this guy has built a permanent sander/grinder in the middle of his yard, like it’s a bird feeder or something. It just seems too tacky for the setting and completely out of place, forced in to make a point which had already been made by that point in the movie.
Then there’s James’s security system. It’s allegedly top of the line in what appears to be a new McMansion. So when the baddies are outside, and his wife (the wonderful Lena Headey) asks if they’re going to be OK, James admits that while it won’t be easy for the Purgers to get in, it’s possible. So there’s a mounting buildup as we what for the Purgers tools to arrive, wondering what sort of fire, explosions, damage and mayhem await. The tools: A redneck with a pickup and a winch. That’s right. They tie a chain to the bars on the windows and pull them off, no harder than peeling the plastic seal off a pudding cup. I’m expecting the Battle of Helm’s deep; instead I get Earnest battling the developers with a bunch of junior high kids and an unstable golf cart.
The action that ensues is the same thing, repeated. Person A enters dark room with only a flashlight, silence builds, Person B (and/or C, D, E) jumps out, fight happens. Over and over. And why is it dark? Because it seems to me if you have millions to build your dream home, you might actually have a couple of generators installed to keep the power going in case of an outage.
This is what ultimately hurts The Purge, the journey. Too many stupid things happen – the son’s health seems to be an issue at the start, but never comes up again; for some reason the family’s first thought isn’t to load up on the guns from their fancy cabinet; no safe room in the super-secure mansion; etc. – that show flawed reasoning and unnecessary action. For as smart as the concept and the themes of The Purge are, what’s happening on-screen plays out at a much lower IQ. It also moves too quickly. The siege outside and the family’s actions inside should drive this movie, but it’s rushed through to get the baddies inside the house for underwhelming fights.
If you’re a horror fan, I’d recommend The Purge as a worthy view. But for those who dislike horror for the gore for gore’s sake, lack of logic, etc., this isn’t going to change any minds.