Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Purge review

    One of the weirdest complaints I have ever heard about a movie is "this could never happen." This was frequently leveled at The Purge when it first came out. Now that its much-improved sequel, The Purge: Anarchy is out, I thought I'd revisit this title and why I think this is an odd complaint. There's still plenty of flaws with the movie but the one I hear most is one I just do not get.

    The premise is, for one day a year, all crime is legal with a few minor restrictions on weaponry as well as who you can kill. This is stated to have increased the economy, reduced unemployment, and reduced crime across the board. The price for this is the poor, homeless, and unloved by society are preyed upon by an increasingly bloodthirsty public. This is a pretty big pill to swallow and where most audiences either tune in or tune out. However, it's actually the backstory for the movie rather than the "main plot."

    The main plot is, sadly, considerably less interesting than then setting. A 'New Money' family locks itself down for the night until their young son takes in a homeless man fleeing an angry mob. The mob decides killing the homeless man is worth breaking into their home and the family must decide to turn him over or fight off the invaders. Some commentators have uncharitably stated the only reason the titular Purge exists is to justify why the family can't call the police. To that, I say, "that's not the entire reason. Probably."

Who could possibly think this man is unreasonable?

     Describing the story, I can see plenty of readers rolling their eyes and shaking their head at such a ludicrous idea as legalizing crime for a single night. You know what's also ludicrous? Vampires. Zombies. Video tapes which can kill you in seven days. The list goes on and on but we expect these premises because they're the basis of the story.

     Of course, I understand the suspension of disbelief is something you need to maintain. The thing is, I don't think the movie's 'message' is meant to be taken literally. It's not a story about how, if we were willing to outlaw crime, then everyone rich would become bloodthirsty psychopaths profiting from the suffering of others.  No, I think the movie is one extended metaphor.

    A parable if you will.

    The America depicted is a religious, materialist, and patriotic society which prides itself on its civility. The New Founding Fathers, the unseen architects of the Purge, have convinced the entirety of America that legalizing crime one night of the year is in their best interests. That the rich and middle-class of society should utilize this time period to enact their most violent fantasies on those who haven't got a prayer of defending themselves. They even state, unironically, this is religiously good as it purges them of darker emotions despite the families involved being ostensible Christians.

Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey do a good job portraying a "normal" American family in very abnormal circumstances.
    Now, I understand, this makes no damn sense on a literal level. Why would legalized crime encourage people on murder-sprees? Wouldn't they be looting instead? Getting themselves a new TV? How about big corporations? Wouldn't the IT guy be emptying his employer's bank account? How in the world would any of this be helping the economy? Well, that's because this isn't about the premise. It's not like, "Today + Purge = Movie."

    It's about America today as is.

    The Purge is an angry movie. It's a smarter movie than it has to be the fact it's mostly just a bog-standard home invasion story. The stock Hollywood horror plot is used to talk about how Americans have blinded themselves to the suffering of the poor, destitute, and needy while convincing themselves they're the good guys. The family in the film isn't evil but they are the very definition of privileged. Blind to the darkness around them or just willfully self-deluded. It's only when directly confronted with the consequences of their apathy they are forced to make a moral choice.

    The acting is top-notch with Lena Heady giving a great performance as the moral center of the film. Rhys Wakefield gives a deliciously over-the-top performance as the leader of the yuppie psychopaths. I also liked Ethan Hawke's attempt to be his family's patriarch despite being both emotionally and physically weak. I cared about the family and wanted to get through the disaster alive. That, at its most basic level, makes it a good horror movie.

    Now, does the movie have flaws? Oh, immense ones. As mentioned, the actual execution of the movie is a bog-standard home invasion story. Countless times, it seems like someone is going to die only for them to get saved at the last minute by someone off-camera. Their house is also, apparently a labyrinth since they can't find a single guy hiding out in it.

The Purge is about American hypocrisy the same way Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism. That's my take, at least.
    That's not counting the fact they're not smart enough to see they're alone in the house to begin with. I'm also more than a little peeved our "heroes" didn't even bother to learn the name of the one black character in the movie (nor did the movie feel obligated to share it).

    Still, I think The Purge is an excellent movie. Is it original in anything but premise? Hell no. The social satire, however, elevates the material. The performances are very good for a movie of this caliber, though, too. In short, the movie skates by with a bit of political commentary and an emotional core which makes you care about the victims. That's all a horror movie has to do and it does a little bit more besides. So I give it an "above average" score. Watch it if you're bored and want to be entertained.


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