So Bad It’s Comic, by David Bax
If you hadn’t noticed, American audiences have begun to tolerate movies based on comic books in recent years. Despite cinema being a medium that usually feels more immediate and real than other storytelling arts, people seem to be happily suspending their disbelief when it comes to bulletproof body armor with bat ears on it or the notion of a Norse god and a radioactive green giant joining forces to battle aliens. James DeMonaco’s The Purge, which is an original idea by the writer/director, would have been well-advised to take advantage of that willingness. Instead, he presents us with a bonkers but potentially fruitful premise and then follows through with little more than a bland and humorless home-invasion thriller that grinds through the motions.
It’s 2022 and somehow, in a mere nine years, our do-nothing Congress has managed to reinvent the country to the extent that we not only accept but embrace an annual twelve-hour window in which all crime is legal, including murder. That clarification is not mine. The official announcement from the movie’s government contains the words “including murder.” Much like the film itself, this administration is not concerned with subtlety.
Ethan Hawke, with a haircut that makes him look like Brian Grazer after wearing a hat all day, makes a very good living selling severe home security systems to wealthy people looking to wait out the yearly Purge in quiet comfort behind the reinforced barriers that slide down ominously but reassuringly over the windows and doors. His wife, who has a name but was probably originally just called Wife/Mother in the screenplay, is played by Lena Headey with shortish black hair and a sign that reads, “I am not that character from Game of Thrones but a nice person instead.”
There are also two children, whose life of privilege has left them unable to understand why so much of the population believes it to be their patriotic duty to kill people for twelve hours a year. The viewer will sympathize with this confusion but that’s not the movie’s point. The point is about the foundations of class, where the rich are bred to expect security and the poor are grist for the mill. Or, perhaps more fittingly, they are food for the wolves. The Purge’s true believers repeatedly talk of the cathartic necessity to “release the beast,” which sounds like the slogan in an obnoxious energy drink commercial.
Were The Purge set further in the future, with a more distinct break from our current reality, it might not seem quite so ridiculous. But it’s far too solemnly intent on broadcasting its themes to realize those themes would have more impact couched in a film that gave its audience some of what it came for. If we were allowed to indulge in some of the mayhem and bloodlust promised by the setup, the movie could actually be fun. To be clear, though, The Purge does not approve of your having fun while watching it.
The meat of the action is depressingly austere. A group of Purging individuals lays siege to our hero family’s massive suburban home. DeMonaco doesn’t commit to the horror-trope possibilities of the situation but is also too buttoned down to give us the gore-fest free-for-all that would at least make the film a base diversion. So preoccupied is he with his message that he executes the actual drama with only the most rote conventions. Is a bad guy, for instance, standing above a good guy with a gun or knife, on the verge of unleashing deadly force? Don’t worry, that intruder will be shot at the last possible second by whichever protagonist is not in the room at the moment. This happens three times. DeMonaco is also not interested enough to turn down the blaring foghorn of foreshadowing in the first act that practically gives away the reveal in the third.
The Purge is the rare studio movie that actually could have benefited from being more targeted to immature young men. The social commentary is inherent in DeMonaco’s outline and would likely have been more effective if implied rather than shouted. Maybe someday someone will make a comic book out of it and get it right.