Did I Just See an Argument Supporting Video Game Violence?
A Film Review of The Purge
By: Lawrence Napoli
Human beings: Are we smart animals or transcendent beings? Are we inherently violent or is our behavior the result of other, more complex forces at work? Believe it or not, but The Purge is a horror/thriller that makes an attempt at some social commentary in regards to this very topic. Having seen the trailers, I was expecting something pulpy, raw and completely void of intelligence. The hook of this story alone makes it one of the smartest horror/thriller films I’ve seen in a long time. I must reiterate though, this praise is reserved strictly to the framework of the story and the fictional reasoning behind allowing American citizens to embrace total anarchy and their inner bloodlust with zero consequences. There are a number of turns to typical, horror filmmaking techniques that snatch greatness away from this film and most of that is attributed to deficiencies in character development. Still, The Purge manages to make you think while it entertains and that’s something horror films simply don’t do these days.
Bad people are coming for you!
I can see this film being quite polarizing in that it could fire up gun lobbyists, religion, rich people and the political right in general, but most of the audience I sat with was more concerned with seeing new ways to be scared of home invasion and accumulating a high body count in the process. The elements of the story that makes The Purge “horrifying” and “thrilling” happen to be its glaring weaknesses as the same foreground-background reveals are combined with jump scares, POV stalking and surveillance footage. As frightening as real-world home invasion is, what the audience experiences in this film is tame compared to its contemporary brethren. Lots of the horror standards are present story-wise: rebellious teenage daughter, family disconnect, social ignorance, false sense of security, revenge and of course “sacrificing the innocent.” All of these elements fail to be impactful in any way because these themes are all too familiar to us and writer/director James DeMonaco delivers them in such conventional fare that it does inspire several instances of eye-rolling in response. And speaking of eye-rolling, the main characters inspire nothing but; thanks mostly to their frustrating behavior which clearly does not jive with people (of means) living in a world where “The Purge” is a reality. Once again, people acting in this manner are key conventions of horror by playing up the whole “we are the causes of our own demise” angle that allows danger to infiltrate where it wouldn’t normally. Under the harsh lens of industry-standard horror filmmaking, The Purge simply follows the rules without pushing the envelope which makes for a dissatisfying horror experience, but perhaps this film was not meant to be seen as strictly that?
Yes we're scared. Convention 1.
This film makes some pretty direct political, ethical, moral and economic statements concerning the current state of the union and applying them to some fictional circumstance in the not so distant future actually inspires a moment to pause. First, DeMonaco clearly feels that the super rich are big problems in today’s economy because their monopoly over the accumulation of wealth is apparently fueled by their willful ignorance of how that affects everyone else. Of course, the posh suburbs support “Purge” violence because it never hits their homes thanks to the state of the art security systems they all pay for and it provides for the euthanizing of undesirables like the homeless, the hungry and the poor who cannot afford the same kind of “protection.” Second, the proliferation of high powered weapons in society is something DeMonaco views as troubling. “The Purge” allows for Class 4 weapons (assault rifles and auto-shotguns) and lower to be used which means flame-throwers, grenade launchers and bazookas are a no-go. This movie is not meant to look like The Expendables, but it makes you wonder why so many gun enthusiasts in the real world are so desperate to hold on to their assault weapon “rights” when there isn’t a fictional day in the calendar year that allows for legalized hell on earth and we are all tasked with our own security. Third, DeMonaco obviously lumps government in the same boat as the super rich as part of the problem for passing such an utterly ridiculous law in the first place, but also for the fact that the most influential government representatives are immune from “The Purge.” Conveniently, people like the president, governors, mayors and senators are not to be harmed in any way. In the end, The Purge is a hyper envisioning of what the writer/director sees in American reality today and by seeing the extremes, people can become more aware and upset over the more subtle economic and political policies of control such as The Patriot Act and legalized government surveillance that brings us closer to a life free from liberty.
The Purge: land of free cadavers, home of the brave with big guns!
There seems to be an inordinate amount of action for a horror/thriller film such as this. The first half of the film is hard at work setting the audience up for what seems to be some significant urban assault and surprisingly, the movie actually goes there. There is a decent amount of gunplay at work as well as what seems like a random proficiency with hand to hand pugilism. These scenes are actually shot fairly well and although they don’t do much to heighten the suspense, these moments are satisfying to watch. The only thing that seems a bit off with the action is who actually engages in it and how well they perform without being established as having training of any kind. For example, there is a moment close to the climax of this film where the father of the Sandin family inexplicably turns into Rambo and dispatches a number of threats in sequence with barely a scratch on him. The logistics of this entire film borders on the absurd so buying into these leaps in expertise isn’t too difficult, but a little more back story and character development could have easily reconciled this.
Honey, I got this.
The performances within The Purge all hinge upon father and mother Sandin played by Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey, respectively. Despite being amongst the wealthiest of a pristine upper class community, they are not depicted as base snobs in any way. Hawke and Headey both go for composed performances with slight alterations. Hawke’s James Sandin is really excited about his work directly leading to his family’s increased status so the energy he exudes approaches that of “the annoying rich guy making everything his business,” but this gets pulled way back once danger ensues. Hawke transforms into an average Joe protecting his family quickly without being overburdening or annoyingly over-heroic which makes it easier to sympathize with him. Headey begins as a fairly engaged mother who doesn’t really give off any sort of elitist vibe, but her transformation goes directly to a quivering weakling which seems too stereotypical for women in horror films and certainly makes no sense for any adult cognizant of the real danger that begins in the USA every March 21st.
You may have seen this before in any other horror film. Convention 2.
Every other performance from support to antagonists plays off the strength of this relationship. The Sandin children played by Max Burkholder Adelaide Kane do their jobs by performing as frustrating children seem to always do in survival situations on film. Plainly put, they are always liabilities. Ms. Kane’s arc turns her into a damsel in distress and Burkholder represents the moral/ethical counter perspective to the existence of “The Purge” as policy. Their performances feed the strength of their parents as characters, which is fine as a baseline, but they never evolve beyond pure support. The same is true for the antagonists who want to “purge” the Sandin family. Preppy psychotics with an elitist perspective on their violence having a positive contribution to society sounds interesting, but that idea has been overdeveloped in horror. Rhys Wakefield is the only villain who reveals his face and therefore is the only performance that can be evaluated. His smug ego lights up his demented smile, but his character never shifts status from that plastic demeanor even when you assume that increasing bloodlust would turn anyone into a much more ravenous creature. Normally I call for more interesting villains, but in this circumstance I was fine with keeping these bastards as flat as possible because doing so would backtrack on DeMonaco’s social commentary.
Is there really a difference?
The Purge is an interesting film that finds more fans with members of the audience who are more seasoned and are politically and socially engaged. Teens and Tweens going to see a mindless slasher/brutality film will be disappointed because this movie simply doesn’t do those things that well. Anyone else that goes for basic thrills and scares will be let down because the tension never elevates to a fever pitch. In fact, the whole concept of “The Purge” is the only thing that makes this film worthy of existence. Exploring this new “law” and the events that allowed “The New Founders” of America to tack it on to the constitution would have added 40 minutes of runtime and turned it into a completely different movie. Removing the spectacle of reckless abandon and the base essence of “releasing the beast,” would have made this a much more difficult film to sell investors and if that doesn’t happen, movies (especially horror films) don’t get made. I will, however, suggest that real people in the real world do need a form of release and escape from the grind of getting by day by day, but that needs to be done through a proxy such as watching movies, reading books or playing video games. Oh yes, even the most holy of rollers will agree with allowing digital aggression when the alternative is your neighbor knocking on your door and shooting you in the face.