The Purge is a semi high-concept film about crime, punishment, the nature of society, the dynamics of family, the role of the media – all in air quotes – wrapped inside a nuts’n’bolts siege thriller. In two sentences, the plot is that once a year there is no law enforcement whatsoever, allowing the citizen body to “purge” its negative emotions in a single night of ultra-violence. The film follows one family, who run afoul of a vigilante mob intent on focusing their purge on a single individual who’s found his way into their home. The emphasis you take from it will depend significantly on how comfortable you are with Hollywood’s culture of so-called meaningless violence, in much the same way as your interpretation of Total Recall will be almost completely determined by your willingness to buy into the same narrative fantasy that Quaid literally buys from “Recall”. In this simplistic mode, all of those purportedly high concepts are merely a pretext for the inevitable violence that ensues – in the same way as the violence in virtually every summer blockbuster has a pretext. The most prominent recent example in my mind is the doubling of perspective on the Hunger Games, where the audience in the real world is supposed to be appalled by the whole concept of the games… and yet, we share the voyeuristic interest in the blood-letting as the audience for the games inside the fiction; the ironic and satiric distance we claim is a contested perspective on the film.
Convincingly assuming the moral high ground in these kinds of entertainment is almost always achieved by identifying with a protagonist whose personal morality supersedes the corrupt world they inhabit. Thus in The Running Man, we are left in no doubt whatsoever that our protagonist is a moral man framed for opposing a wholly corrupt political system, and the film doubles-down on this by openly showing the crowds rooting for the supposed villains of the piece, the professional gladiators. His popularity in the game show is inversely proportional to his success. The Hunger Games allows greater ambiguity by having Catniss be a popular hero; in fact, that reduction of the distance in moral perspective is the key to her success with us and within the fiction. In The Purge, the necessary moral perspective is offered by the young son, whose reaction appears to be purely instinctive. Faced with the facts and figures confidently spouted by his father, he can only retreat. The distance and perspective then is only weakly presented in The Purge, leaving no strong articulation of a substantially different rational argument on the action within the fiction; against the oft-stated efficacy of “the purge” we have only the basic emotional reaction of a small child, framing the conflict as one of naive emotional morality versus pragmatism. This simple-minded innocence is what generates the action in the drama, as the younger child of the family rescues a homeless man beset by a mob intent on murdering him, and they divert their attention to the family.
The action is tightly confined to one family in one house with one potential victim of the purge almost precisely for the duration of the purge inside the fiction (it spills only a little either side). This efficiently eliminates any requirement for the drama to really substantiate the claims that are made for the efficacy of the purge. We never see the perfectly-functioning society, nor the clean-up of the damage, nor really the personal consequences for individual participants. A few fragmentary voice-overs and snippets of news footage all focus on the negative aspects of the experience. This makes the film’s opening gambit, that the purge has virtually “fixed” the problem of crime, into a completely theoretical and abstract scenario. Furthermore, the film virtually obeys the basic karmic morality of the Hayes Production Code, where bad people suffer bad consequences and virtuous people emerge unscathed. In a sense, this supports the basic thesis of the film – that those who need to purge are the most likely to themselves be purged and hence society is, in the end, cleansed of their corruption. However, that argument pits a deep theoretical and abstract reading against the emotional reality that’s represented directly on screen, so it’s a tough sell. If the point of the film is to posit a dystopian (or utopian) “what if” scenario, we can really only conclude that this isn’t a fruitful route for society.
This solution, of the ultimate preferability of a conventional moral sensibility, is so overwhelmingly supported by the text that it rather begs the question: why make this film? Other films with no credible substance to their dystopian features, such as Equilibrium or Logan’s Run, are structured to provide a showcase their the evolution and power of their protagonists. Because of the narrow focus of the film, the entire theoretical framework starts to feel like the laziest bit of convenience-plotting ever. Contrast with other siege films, where a large chunk of exposition is required to establish what makes the target special, what causes the siege location to be capable to withstanding it, and so on. All those logistical difficulties go away in this film because the answer is always “because… purge”. I think the premise of the film and the interpolation of in-fiction news footage provides a thin veneer of satire which doesn’t really sustain the action of the film – there is no satiric reading here, critiquing American culture.
Instead, we are left with the classical formulation of a tragedy, which even obeys the three unities. All of Aristotle’s necessary elements are present, and crucially his formulation encapsulates the ambivalent morality of our central character: “the change, of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: … Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity … [but] the character between these two extremes,–that of a man who is not eminently good and just,-yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Refocusing our attention on this requirement for ambivalence helps to explain the somewhat murky moral position for the film as a whole. The central flaw of our protagonist is that he doesn’t know what the moral thing is. He begins the film believing in the utility of the purge, but when his daughter’s girlfriend uses the occasion to try and eliminate the meddlesome father, he comes face to face with a personal motive that bears little relation to the kind of generalised violence their world claims is beneficial. Killing the boyfriend dodges the central moral question raised by his existence – what level of control should a father have? Similarly, his fortunes are based on selling security systems that in some senses are a placebo, and yet like other placebos they are measurably effective – the destruction of his home makes that frailty as such explicit.
The main problem with the film as a tragic formulation is that the scenes of recognition are all somewhat underdone. The first tragedy is the murder of the daughter’s boyfriend – but the sweep of the siege drama means that rather than an exploration of how this changes the family dynamic (how the father reevaluates his role as head of the house or the autonomy of his daughter etc) we have only a perfunctory scene of her fleeing in horror. This becomes a minor plot point in the detail of the terror of the siege, which is about the least interesting use available. Similarly, when the neighbours confront the family over their parasitic history (of selling placebo home security and hence becoming wealthy) there is not sufficient sense of context for the scenes to really carry much emotional weight compared to the straightforward siege thriller that enfolds it.
As I was watching it, The Purge felt a little simplistic, a little predictable, and a little reliant on shocks and scares, most of which were fairly predictable. That unsatisfying experience draws on a large number of different story elements, components, and takes quite a few swipes at modern problematic trends and attitudes. If you enjoy it, I think you’d be inclined to think of all this as an ambition unfulfilled. If you don’t, I think you’d condemn it as a film that couldn’t quite make up its mind what it or its characters should be.
I gave it a 6/10 on the IMDB because it was pacy enough and interesting enough.