Sunday, June 30, 2013
The Purge (2013)
Good Fences That Make Good Neighbors
Last December, barely a month after being re-elected, Barack Obama unexpectedly found himself in Newton, Connecticut facing the American press teary-eyed. It wasn’t a belated rush of emotion after pulling through a rigorous campaign but from the chilling aftermath of a violent incident. A young man, Adam Lanza had killed twenty-six people including his own mother before committing suicide at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. As the President wept for the victims and declared that such an incident must never occur again, the debate about gun control intensified. Four months later a proposed bill that would restrict gun control in America failed to pass in the Senate by a mere six votes. The message to Obama was clear: don’t mess with our guns.
To be fair to the President though, it is a message that all his predecessors have had to heed as well. Americans guard their right to bear arms almost as fiercely as their right to vote. Whatever compromises either side of the gun control debate will come to remains largely obscured by the unwillingness of citizens to be unarmed if or when attacked.
Fast-forward to 2022 and James DeMonaco’s film The Purge gives us one such compromising outcome. The film posits the idea of the American government (dubbed the Founding Fathers of America) controlling crime and unemployment by having a national purge—a twelve hour period once a year where citizens can “release the beast”. That essentially means they can do any crime without consequence, including murder while emergency services go offline.
The film begins on purge day with a busy James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) communicating with clients of his pricy home security systems. He’s made a fortune from them, never missing an opportunity to remind clients that it’ll keep them safe during the annual event. As he heads home, he engages in banter with a neighbor and can’t help but boast about his own new system. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) is busy in the kitchen with dinner while their daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is sneaking her boyfriend out through her window. Both of them interact with other neighbours in a way James does not: Zoey silently watches a man sharpening a huge machete while Mary tries to brush off a nosy Grace (Arija Bareikis) who offers her cookies and gossip about the Sandins’ home. The two women exchange fake pleasantries then move away from each other and it’s easy to see derision between them.
That disinterest is within the family itself as they eat dinner and exchange fake dialogue. As sirens indicate the commencement of the purge, James surveys the outward cameras of the property and is mildly surprised to see two neighbours outside about to take part of the ritual. It doesn’t alarm him that there would be people in his neighbourhood who would do so but he is taken aback that the two were even friendly. His own derision towards Grace shows up clearly when he sees that she is keeping her annual party and thanks God that the family was not invited this year. As the emergency broadcasting system kicks in, the family separates in the house to get away from each other. Again, James doesn’t seem concerned that he isn’t able to control the happening in his home but as he surfs the Internet for a yacht to buy, he hears the security system being disbanded. His son Charlie (Max Burkholder) has let a stranger into the house. While he’s reeling from this new situation, Zoey’s boyfriend appears on the stairs and points a gun at him. He fires at the young man, fatally wounding him but seems more concerned about the stranger.
At this point The Purge has already touched upon enough motifs to turn out to be a decent thriller but just as masked strangers appear at the front door demanding they turn the stranger over to them, the Sandin clan-- through some clunky writing by DeMonaco, begin to unravel. So too does the structure of the film as well as common sense. Gaps in the plot begin to get worrisome and no one seems in control of their actions. For example, when the strangers issue their threat, the power inexplicably goes. It’s a stretch to think James wouldn’t have back-up power so the last thirty minutes are played out in virtual darkness. Even the clever twist at the end gets betrayed by a sense of randomness, which undermines the attempted suspense.
James never gets to see that his sense of security literally wasn’t in his shabby product but those around him, the human element he’s so comfortable in swindling for profit. He’s allowed greed to cloud his judgment and family’s own security with Mary only at times feeling remorseful herself. Though he’s framed as a bit off-kilter, it’s up to Charlie to bring his parents around to realizing that doing the right thing is the only thing that matters. He knows that it doesn’t hurt to be nice to your neighbours even if it’s only on purge night. You’ll definitely want them on your side then.