The Purge comes courtesy of Blumhouse Productions, the production company who in the last year or two have used their Paranormal Activity franchise millions to churn out numerous horrors that manage to balance relatively high production values for the genre and casting of known actors with surprisingly low budgets; never going over $5 million. It is this formula that allows them to take risks on unusual scripts that may be too risky for the Hollywood studios who insist on throwing tens of millions at anything they produce. As is the case with risks, some hit the mark while others don’t. In their defense, I would say more of their non-Paranormal Activity output has been a hit, but unfortunately The Purge is one of the latter ones. We open with a montage of brutal news footage of violent crimes set to the calming sound of Debussy’s Clair De Lune. It is seemingly comprised of a mixture of staged footage & real-life stock clips which really sat uneasily with me – this mixture was very discordant and unsettling and not in a good way. These points obviously don’t apply to the remainder of the film but the sequence distanced me from the film from the offset (understandably a terrible thing to do in a film) and I disagree with the artistic decision made here so I feel it relevant to outline. Of course if I’m wrong and it’s all staged I’ll take these points back.
Into the main film now, leaving the opening sequence behind as much as possible, we are introduced to the high-concept makings of the film; in 2022 the titular Purge is an annual event in America where all crime is made legal for 12 hours, allowing people to loot, rape and murder their night away to release all inner anger and stress. As a result, crime and (somehow) unemployment are at rock-bottom; seemingly everything is perfect; not least for our central family, the father of whom (Ethan Hawke) has turned his fortunes around by selling super security systems to the whole neighborhood. Beside him is his perfect wife (Lena Headey) and two children. The two children are taken straight off the screenwriting stock shelf; a moody teenage girl whose tantrums push the plot along at times alongside her brother who at once manages to be intelligent enough to build and use various Deus ex Machina technologies, yet stupid enough to bring about a number of plot points that had me rolling my eyes more and more each time until I wondered whether they would pop out and roll across the room on their own accord.
The annual Purge, as I mentioned, has brought about major change in what must have been less than 10 years since it’s introduction and the middle to upper classes at least seem to be almost unanimously keen on the concept, with TV events covering the 12 hours, and brief glimpses of the media build-up; radio phone-ins featuring people listing those they intend on murdering, suburban glee surrounding groups of people meeting up to have communal rampages. At once this is rather a cynical view of society; that people, even those who are under stress and pressure, will take such delight in an annual murdering spree catapulting it into a national celebration within a decade, whilst being an overly optimistic view at the same time; that this once-a-year event has in the same short time caused a massive decline in crime, as though the people who commited crimes before will have had their fill for the year thanks to the purge. The film offers some counter-argument from other media sources suggesting it isn’t such a great thing but this is never fully explored, never more than a brief suggestion of another side to the story. With the concept fully outlined in a manner that is effective and efficient, yet nonetheless contrived, a plot is required, following our family as they aim to sit out The Purge in suburban safety around the creepily-smiley middle-class citizens of their neighborhood.
Without spoiling the plot (everything I’ve explained so far is outlined in the first 20 minutes or so), I will say as much as that almost every turn the plot takes and decision characters make seems to be unbelievably stupid. Once our A Clockwork Orange carbon-copy villains inevitably arrive, they regardless have a genuinely unsettling unhinged edge that improves the film somewhat, if detracting from the more original elements previously present (for better or worse). An unpredictable final act often does it’s best to claw back believability, but a key scene introduces a new perspective of The Purge that may have worked if it wasn’t so jarringly sudden and delivered so dreadfully by the actors responsible.
All in all, The Purge is a film that carries on Blumhouse’s trademark knack for high production value, with a great main cast, well-thought out visuals, good pacing and some great unsettling moments, often rather understated, though more times than necessary reverts to cheap jump scares with obnoxious loud noises. However, we all know what one cannot polish, and the basic premise & major plot beats are indeed that.