Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey
Written and Directed by James DeMonaco
When trying to create some sort of social or political commentary through art, be it canvas, the written word, song or cinema, it’s important to make sure that, by completion, you’ve actually said something. It ultimately doesn’t matter how well you tell your story, because once you cross into “this is a metaphor for something” territory, if there isn’t a metaphor, your story is hollow.
Such is the problem with James DeMonaco’s lofty goal film The Purge. He posits the ideal that crime, unemployment, poverty, all the bad stuff, would be reduced to almost zero, if we allowed all crime to be legal for a 12 hour period. It’s a premise that doesn’t make sense on paper, but is just weird enough that you’re intrigued enough to allow the line of questioning, on the condition that it goes somewhere, or says something, interesting. But it doesn’t. There’s no logical explanation as to why this works, aside from the false notion that all human beings are evil at heart, and bottling it up makes the world a terrible place, ergo, let people kill, maim, destroy with no repercussion, and all problems solved. There’s no big philosophical or psychological reveal that really challenges you to think.
While watching the film, and on the drive home afterwards, I was reminded of two films, both in the same, or a similar, genre. Both exquisitely saying what I think The Purge was trying say. The first being Wes Craven’s 1972 thriller classic The Last House on the Left (which was superbly remade in 2009). We’re given two groups of people: the vile gang of murderers and rapists, and the good clean-cut family. And it’s the good clean-cut family that goes on a murderous rampage throughout the film, getting rid of the “bad guys.” Everybody is capable of bad, of evil. We’re presented with traditional hero/villain archetypes, and while we root for the hero, they’re doing sadistic, villainous acts, and it becomes hard to root for them.
The second film was the 2002 British zombie flick 28 Days Later… (one of my all time favourite films) from Danny Boyle. It, too, blurred the line between hero and monster, when Jim goes on his rampage through the mansion, methodically taking out the soldiers. He was running on pure rage, despite not being infected with rage.
That’s the lesson it appears DeMonaco was trying to teach. That we’re all a little evil, and it’s good to vent that. But throughout the movie, the heroes did good things, the villains did bad things, and no lessons were learned by anyone. On or off-screen.
So I have to ask? What were you trying to say, and why didn’t you say it?
It wasn’t a total loss. Taken in as just a straight home-invasion thriller, it’s effective, you’re engaged throughout. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey anchor a cast of otherwise unknowns, and do so capably. But with a broached subject matter that never gets fleshed out, it feels ultimately hollow.
You can skip this in theatres… probably on Netflix or Redbox as well. Maybe in a few years you’re going to be up late one night, and catch it at 2 am on TNT or USA, and with nothing better to watch than reruns of The Office you’ve already seen 200 times, you’ll say “Meh… Brodie said this would happen, so I might as well.”