JUNE 6, 2013
Even before I began making a living by creating them, I always stuck around to watch the end credits of a movie if possible; not only is there an increasing chance that there will be an extra scene, but you can gain some valuable insight on occasion. Such is the case in The Purge; buried deep down in the traditional crawl there's a break to allow for a full-screen credit for an "additional editor" - this is very unusual, and almost certainly a sign of a movie that was edited once and then heavily reworked by a fresh pair of eyes. Since the movie was shot well over a year ago and clocks in at a mere 85 minutes including credits, it's not too much of a stretch to suspect there's a different - and possibly superior - version of the movie buried on an Avid somewhere.
By now we all know the concept - in a near-future, the country's government (never seen, and only briefly described as the "New Founding Fathers") has implemented the titular Purge, where once a year (perhaps not too coincidentally on the first day of spring) for a period of 12 hours, all crime is legal and no emergency services will be available. There are some underexplained exceptions - no heavy weapons (i.e. you can't just go blow shit up, I guess), no attacks on government officials (duh), etc, though the movie curiously only focuses on murder/assault related crimes. Not that I need/want to see rape or torture, but the idea is that people can give into their urges without repercussion and thus be OK for the other 364 and a half days of the year, so what about those who just want to, I dunno, jerk off in public? As presented in the movie, The Purge is really just "Go ahead and kill people if you want".
As a result, once this rushed, only vaguely defined world is explained, the movie merely becomes another home invasion film, complete with masked, ahem, "strangers" and people being silently followed around their own home, albeit with more gunplay than usual (the killers brandish machetes and such, but at least 75% of the deaths in the film are by gunshot). At this point, it's no different than Straw Dogs or whatever - regardless of the "law" that says you can kill someone, Ethan Hawke and his family are merely defending themselves from attackers in their own home, which is legal anyway. The moral dilemma comes in the form of a homeless vet (and, while not explicitly brought up, a black man) who Hawke's son lets into their home after seeing that he needs help. His pursuers, led by a guy who stepped out of an American Psycho lookalike contest, find him quickly enough and offer Hawke a pretty easy deal - kick the guy out of the house and let them have their Purge fun, and they'll leave him and his family alone. Otherwise, they'll tear the doors down and kill everyone.
And this is where the movie's insurmountable problems really begin, and the underwhelming (and, despite what the ads play up, not as scary-leaning as you might expect) home invasion elements certainly can't save it. Yes, it's easier said than done to just hand a guy over to be killed, but he's hiding in the house (which now has no electricity; the security runs on a generator but not a single light, I guess), giving us an entire reel's worth of Hawke and wife Lena Headey (who doesn't get to do anything badass until the last 5 minutes - why hire someone who could mop the floor with everyone else in the movie? It would make more sense to hire a NON-asskicker so that when that moment arrives, it actually shocks as intended) looking around their own house for someone who inexplicably turns on them even before the strangers show up with a reason to do them harm. Worse, their idiot son has led him to a secret hiding spot that they seemingly don't know about, so now we have to believe that Hawke, who sells security systems for a living, doesn't know the layout of his own home.
But then again, neither does director James DeMonaco, apparently - throughout the entire movie I had trouble understanding where anyone was in relation to each other or even what floor they were on, or the passage of time. Yes, it's a big house, but how long could it take for Hawke and Headey to look around not only for the vet but their daughter, who has ALSO gone hiding for reasons that never quite make sense. See, the movie needs an obvious "protagonist" kill, so of course her boyfriend has snuck into the house before they locked it down for the Purge (and yes, despite having no reason to go outside or anything, they wait until the last minute to turn on their security system, for some reason). But how (spoiler!) he dies is completely ridiculous even for this movie, and you have to ask yourself - what exactly did the boyfriend plan to do if his original plan had worked out? Would have been a pretty awkward 12 hours.
Anyway, so it's "Hide and seek" the movie, where no one is hiding for a logical reason, and when they DO find him (via a completely botched attempt at what could have been a decent suspense piece - the daughter decides to go hide in the same spot), more time is wasted on the struggle to get him outside. It's as if DeMonaco thought traditional home invasion stuff was far more interesting than the fascinating sci-fi concept that the movie was supposedly about; every single thing that happens from the moment the strangers arrive until the last one has been dispatched could be cut and pasted into any other scenario. Every now and then someone will mention the Purge, but again - once a guy smashes through your window and tries to lop your head off with an axe, you are free to shoot him in the chest any day of the year. The final few minutes finally come back to the scenario and how it doesn't necessarily come down to a war between the haves and the have nots, but the explanation we get for certain characters' behavior is beyond idiotic - and that's with the clumsy foreshadowing that gave it away in the film's opening scenes.
In short, the movie botches pretty much every good idea it has, and while there are a handful of great moments (I love that one stranger terrorizes Headey by tickling her), it never adds up to anything fully satisfying as a think-piece OR a horror/thriller. Even if the characters WEREN'T idiots (SPOILER - Hawke decides NOT to turn the guy over and instead fight the attackers - but leaves the guy (a trained, able-bodied man) tied to a chair rather than hand him a gun to help), it's nearly impossible to get into the movie when they've left so much unexplained. I've said it a million times; I'll accept ANY movie's plot, no matter how ludicrous, as long as the movie takes the time to at least try to explain its interior logic within that idiotic scenario. Armageddon is the easiest example to use (and fitting, since this was co-produced by Bay's Platinum Dunes - their first film in over 3 years): everyone makes the joke about it being easier to train oil drillers to be astronauts than the other way around, but the movie gives it a "fair enough" explanation (drilling problems come up that you need to deal with quickly or else you'll die; the oil drillers didn't have to fly the damn shuttles, just sit there and do their thing once they landed, etc). So, fine. I'm sure it's still nonsense in the real world, but it's SOMETHING for *this* world - The Purge never even offers us that much. We're told that this thing happens and that's that; any questions you may have about how it WORKS (for example - no emergency services, but what if someone falls in their home and needs an ambulance? They just die?) are left to your imagination, because DeMonaco and his producers (including Jason Blum, so of course there's a goddamn video camera in there somewhere) never made the effort to dig deep into their intriguing scenario because they were too busy focusing on the stuff we've seen done better elsewhere. That, or they edited it out. Here's hoping the Blu-ray (or the already planned sequel) has some of that "fleshed out" feel the movie sorely lacked.
What say you?