The Purge, the latest film from writer/director James DeMonaco, continues in that long cinematic tradition of a high concept, “what if..”, premise. In this case the “what if” deals with the assumption that in the not too distant future all crime is not only allowed, but sanctioned by the government for a twelve hour span of time. This annual “purge” has reduced crime and unemployment to a negligible amount, making this USA the kind of place that seems mildly utopian, but with some noticeable sprinkles of dystopia hiding, none too subtly, under the surface.
So yes, The Purge is one those films who stands on a grandstand of moralizing, all while reveling in what it is condemning. It is a fine line in allegory between using actions and symbolism to point out the inanity of those actions in service of the underlying moral, and those actions and symbolism becoming exploitive and self affirming. This latter side of the line, then, completely denies the entire moral the narrative is trying to put forth. The question, then, is The Purge on the moralizing side of the fence or the reveling side? The truth is that it slips from one side to the other from sequence to the other.
In one sequence, the violence is being condemned in heavy-handed, soliloquy-esque dialogue. In the next sequence, Ethan Hawke is pissed as hell, shotgun from the future in hand, and he’s not gonna take it anymore. While it could be argued that these contrary sequences are there for a clear narrative and thematic reason, there is no real argument against the fact that the execution of this method is never quite as deft as it probably should be.
The result isn’t an offensive, exploitation film as much as an uneven, confused film that only achieves its heavy-handed morality through clumsy dialogue and surface actions. This leaves the interesting questions the film asks mostly unexplored. Instead you get a picture that channels many films without really adding a voice of its own. From “Assault on Precinct 13”, which, coincidently has a remake penned and produced by De Monaco, to “Hunger Games”, and finally to “Funny Games”, The Purge has plenty of moments that remind you of other films. The problem is, it has no real moments that will make The Purge a memorable film in its own right.
Also, on a purely storytelling level, this film has more than its share of convenient occurrences and awkward plot points. From an inexplicable remote controlled burnt-up baby doll on a tank to more last second appearances to save our protagonists likely seen in one film before, The Purge seems less interested in cohesive story elements and more interested in its own high concept. Narrative believability be damned, this movie is gonna have a purge and its gonna have a moral lesson.
The Purge doesn’t really offend with its failures. It mostly entertains and manages to end its through-line , but it also never really impresses. The problem of being so derivative is that it reminds the audience that those prior movies were better films. That fact, combined with the blatant high concept trumpeting, doesn’t make the Purge a bad film, it just makes it a forgettable one. And really, that might be worse.