Maybe you don’t want to give this guy license to kill.
As someone who is generally concerned with films going on longer than they need to, it always intrigues me when I get the sense that a film was too short. The use of the word “too” implies that it is worse than it could be, but there is an appreciation for a film that does what it came to do and gets out of the way. The Purge has a seemingly unbeatable premise, an America a few years in the future where for 12 hours a year, anything goes, and it converts it into a taut thriller, Funny Games meets The Hunger Games, that hints at but rarely delves into the philosophical or social issues that the premise brings with it. Among these are:
1. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) makes his living selling security systems that are much in demand (from those with the means) as a shelter against this spell of chaos. In this way he is much like a war profiteer, taking advantage of the fear and harm of others yet remaining in his mind removed from this morally.
2. The teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and her “too old” 18-year old boyfriend Henry present the concept that for all their protection from the outside world, usually it is the strife within the friends and family that presents the greatest threat. While the film pretty exclusively concerns itself with murder as the crime being committed during this period of anarchy, there are the subtlest hints of sexual menace at points. In varying ways it might have been interesting to use the premise to explore rape culture.
3. The introduction of the “Bloody Stranger” (Edwin Hodge), a man the young son Charlie (Max Burkholder) lets into the house in an act of daring empathy, presents a number of points of interest. His being a poor black man triggers all kinds of historic racial baggage that the film starts to dig into. The film is most overt with its class-based dynamics…the rules of The Purge may be equal but wealth provides a great difference in the effect of The Purge. It is interesting to watch James and Mary (Lena Headey) plead non-violence while they are perfectly willing to tolerate the violence if they aren’t directly involved. Much like Haneke’s Funny Games, there is the subtle accusation of hypocrisy pointed at the audience, though unlike his scolding film, The Purge delivers plenty of crowd pleasing violence (and the audience I saw it with was very into the film)…but this violence does come with plenty of harsher edges to remind us of the stakes.
4. One area where the film does slightly get on my nerves is the context it sets up of a recent past where crime was out of control and the economy was tanked and that The Purge was an effective measure to reduce crime (presumably the statistics don’t include The Purge itself) and boost the economy. This is a fictional world so perhaps it can create as it pleases but in the real world crime has been dropping for multiple decades (though the public won’t believe it) and any economist will tell you that killing off human capital (poorer though they might be) is no way to boost your economy. The film kind of feeds into dangerous conventional wisdom in this set-up.
Still, it is at least critical of one claim about The Purge, that it somehow reduces the violence in people by letting them get it out. The gang of young, wealthy, educated individuals headed by the “Polite Stranger” (Rhys Wakefield) is an example of a people corrupted and almost certainly made more vile by society’s new morality, contrasting with Zoey and Charlie’s empathy. Wakefield delivers an incredible performance, a creepy delight that is ultimately key to the film’s successes as a pure thriller. Surrounded by a gang wearing smiling masks, even without a mask he manages to make his face stretch in a grin that seems equally unreal.
Though I might have liked to see the film spend time to dig into some of the above themes more, there’s every chance that it wouldn’t do so successfully. Perhaps for the best to leave all these elements floating just off in the distance. Even as I wanted a bit more it doesn’t completely avoid making me want a bit less too, as the film’s final twist is its main misstep, sending it just a bit too much into the realm of camp. Still, in a world of dumb horror films, this is one that works and that is enough reason to cheer it on.