James DeMonaco’s The Purge doesn’t just pale in the shadow of The Strangers, an old-school spooker that understood that there’s no greater horror than the unknown; it cringes in it. A rote home-invasion thriller afraid to be seen as just another rote home-invasion thriller, the film turgidly grasps for profundity by framing bloodlust as patriotic duty. The premise, while far-fetched, is intriguing: It’s 2022 and America rewards itself for its impressively low rate of unemployment and violent crime by allowing the general population to go on a 12-hour killing spree without the threat of retribution. But instead of credibly and sensitively articulating the story’s internal logic, making its horrors feel like a still-god-fearing nation’s realistic means of sustaining its newly empowered status, DeMonaco contradicts it, and in turn zaps it of any and all suspense.
The film doesn’t convey the enormous moral and political compromises that must have taken place in order to allow for this scenario, though it does suggest, through TV talking heads and emergency broadcasts, as well as the banal ramblings of the psychopaths who come knocking on a family’s not-so-ironclad doors, that America’s class and race issues are the same during Hilary Clinton’s (or Chris Christie’s) ostensible second term as they were when Mitt Romney ragged on the 47%. But for The Purge’s future vision to have been truly effective, it needed to be in stark contrast to our present reality. The story begins on what could be Wisteria Lane, with Mary Sandin (Lena Headey) receiving a plate of cookies from a neighbor who’s quite frank about her resentment regarding the new addition to the Sandins’ house. It’s a bit of shameless foreshadowing that also happens to insinuate that the rich are no less safe in this future vision than the nation’s dwindling poor and homeless, but as there’s no sense of how intra-rich bitterness has built over time as a result of the higher classes having exhausted their less privileged targets, the presumed efficacy of the annual purge is always called into question.
A film incapable of intelligently thinking out its inherently provocative scenario, The Purge fails to understand that a society that would allow for a night of reprisal-free terror is one where liberalism is dead. Young Charlie (Max Burkholder), though old enough to have lived through a few purge nights, and as such grappled with all of its attendant moral implications, still can’t understand why his pops, James (Ethan Hawke), feels no guilt for wanting to protect their family by throwing a homeless black dude who sneaks into their home back onto the street and into the clutches a group of masked ghoulies. (And this is to say nothing of the boy’s crafty video-surveillance system, which is built from an annoyingly half-burned doll’s body fused to a remote-controlled car, and ostensibly not to fulfill a class assignment.) Also, how to explain why anyone in this town is capable, knowing what their neighbors can do or have done to them on purge night, of living peacefully side by side the remaining 364, sometimes 365, days of the year? In short, the film’s prioritization of effect over cause means that it makes no sense on a fundamental level.
But if this almost incoherently shot film is never insulting as social commentary, it’s because DeMonaco is so obviously insincere about the race and class cards he halfheartedly plants and calculatingly plays throughout; the audience never believes that the horrors of this night will lead to a reawakening of the national consciousness. In the end, he’s more interested in spooking audiences, though he flounders even at that. Red herrings are shamelessly abundant, characters run from each other when they should be sticking together, lose each other constantly in spite of always being within earshot, and the masked, would-be subversives who shrilly loiter outside the Sandin manse before finally breaking in suggest less a group of privileged one-percenters delighting in more than just a tax break than they do hambone-y glee clubbers over-rehearsed for nationals. The film’s problems, then, are double-edged: The Purge inextricably ties its gore to its allegory, but in refusing to make sense of the latter, the former is also made incomprehensible.