Monday, April 28, 2014

Why THE PURGE can teach you so much about what not to do

Some of you might remember that last year I took on THE PURGE in a post talking about how certain concepts require a higher suspension of disbelief than others. As much as we'd like to think that an audience will accept our premises and go with them (and to a certain degree, I think that's reasonable.)  In general, an audience (and yes, even the dreaded readers) will be rather forgiving of certain elements if they are necessary to set up the story.

But like I said last year, when the characters or the premise act counter to basic human nature that threatens the suspension of disbelief. This is particularly dangerous when the setting is recognizable and familiar to the audience. They know human nature and they have a pretty good idea what a normal person would do in a situation that feels like their daily life. But if you have a seemingly normal person in a setting that's almost normal except for one MAJOR difference - the audience might perceive phoniness in the conceit and that often leads to an outright rejection of it.

I cited the trailer of THE PURGE as an example of where the buy-in appeared too great.  The film is set a mere ten years in the future, where all of American society has set aside one night where all laws are suspended for 12 hours.  You name it, it's legal, including murder.  The film tries to convince us that this one night of total indulgence is enough to get all the bad impulses out for the rest of the year.  As a result, crime has plummeted.

At the time, I allowed for the fact that I was only basing this off of seeing the trailer and that it was possible that the movie itself made a more convincing case for this occurrence.  Here's what I said at the time:

"The hurdle for me is that I can't wrap my brain around a society that would say, "Hey, for one night a year, anything goes! Murder, rape, robbery... and then come sun-up, we're all cool with it." I reject the idea that a functional society would even attempt such a thing.

"And then, to put forth the notion that somehow this one night of blood lust apparently gets all of this out of everyone's systems so much that the rest of the year is a utopia? It's hard to imagine human nature working that way. So I don't buy that people would be on board for this, and even if I did, I don't buy that it would work."

Well, I finally watched the movie last week and I have to say that there was nothing else in the film that nullified these issues.  I could probably spend 10,000 just tearing apart the foundation of the premise, but I don't want to waste all that time because I can't see anyone trying to mount an intelligent defense of this hook.

Part of the problem is that this world looks too much like our own world. It's not far enough removed where we accept that the mores of the time will have changed that much.  If I was writing this I'd have pushed it at least fifty years into the future, probably further.  There needs to be room for society to evolve so that basic human values could have been corrupted on such a massive level.

Amazingly, the film really screws the pooch in the attitudes of a lot of its characters towards the Purge.  Guess who the ONE character is who thinks this practice is brutal and barbaric?  The ten year-old kid.  Honestly, if ANYONE should be the most corrupted by the values of this world, it would be the kid who hasn't known anything else.  Ethan Hawke, his wife, their neighbors... they all are old enough to have come of age long before the Purge.  Hawke is about ten years older than me, which means that since this film is set ten years in the future, his character would have been in my classes all through school.  Do we really buy that someone who was in his 30s when the Purge was adopted wouldn't have ANY moral compunctions about it?  And their neighbors are even older!

But the 10 year-old kid who's probably sat through years of classroom lectures about the glory of the Purge, whose seen it held up as society's crowning achievement... HE's the one to have moral misgivings about it.  I don't buy it. At all.  The youngest generation would be the ones mostly likely to accept the progression of society for what it was.

It would also help if the people extolling the virtues of the Purge didn't all speak like some sort of brainwashed cult members.  Rhys Wakefield plays the leader of a group trying to break into Hawke's house and I'd call his performance cartoonish if it didn't make me think Daffy Duck might have made a more nuanced choice for the part.

Later, Hawke's family is saved from the home invaders by his own neighbors.  The twist is that the neighbors decided that once that family's home security was breached, they had an opportunity to "cleanse ourselves" by slaughtering the family for... well... basically just "thinking you're so perfect."  The performance of the actress called upon to sell this speech is mind-numblingly bad. You can't totally blame her, though because she's been tasked with selling a plot twist about as bad as any I've seen in a long time.

And this again makes me doubt the basic premise. If you live in a neighborhood where your neighbors butched an entire family basically out of envy, are you REALLY going to trust those people for the next 364 days until the next Purge comes?  And during the next Purge, won't you be tempted to get in a preemptive strike on them, thus perpetuating the cycle of violence?

The way the conclusion plays out, Hawke's wife, played by Lena Heady, decides there's been enough kiling this night and once she has the upper hand on her attacking neighbors, she forces them to all sit in silence and wait out the Purge.  On one hand, yay for her for not getting her hands dirty.  On the other... are you really going to continue to live next door to these people who were salivating at the free pass of taking your life?

Basically, the Purge should turn everyone into George Zimmerman, carrying a gun everywhere ready to use it on anyone who looks like they "don't belong." Honestly, if the film really confronted that head-on, it might have had some real meat to chew on.  Let's say an Archie Bunker-esque neighbor has been bothering a Middle Eastern family that moved into his neighborhood.  What if during the Purge, they decide to kill him as pre-emptive self-defense?  And how does THAT impact how their neighbors react to them even after the Purge is over?

The wide acceptance of the Purge just doesn't hold water on a macro or a micro level.  I'm sure there are some defenders who will argue the film was merely attempting to be satire, and then mutter some vague statements about how it's a commentary on classism.  First, I don't think the tone is pitched right to pass as satire.  There are certainly moments that feel like it's trying for that sort of theme.  However, they happen in isolated pockets and while some actors are playing the satire, others are playing it straight.

Many reviews lamented that this film sets up a wild premise only to waste it all on a home invasion story.  I take exception to two points of that statement, which actually makes the film sound a lot better than it is.  As we've discussed, this actually is a pretty terrible premise.  It's laughably bad.  MANOS THE HANDS OF FATE has firmer internal logic behind it than this.

The second point is that this film is really a home invasion story.  Sure, but can you still call it that if it takes until minute 58 of an 85-minute film for the invaders to actually breach the place?  That's basically the end of the second act.  Up to that point, there's a lot of time-killing, mostly involving a homeless man whom the young boy has let enter the house.

This needn't have been a fatal mistake.  The tension could have been raised had the characters been fleshed out and actually had some internal conflicts amongst each other that came out as a result of being trapped in this pressure cooker for 12 hours while Rome burns outside.  Gene Hackman supposedly once said, "The best acting takes place in confined spaces."  Vivid characters. Conflict. Tension.  Bottle that up in a room and let the characters bounce off of each other.  Build up enough real drama among the cast that it alone could have sustained the film. THEN you add the home invaders as the icing on that cake.  Because now you've got a movie that's about something.

I'll give the filmmakers one "thumbs up" - in a film where all manner of violence is on the table, I was shocked that at no point did the movie become "rapey."  This is no small feat in a feature that includes a teenage girl who spends the entirety of her screentime in a schoolgirl outfit.  I've seen many a horror thriller that played that card gratuitously and so I spent much of the film dreading the inevitable scene that would have her at the mercy of one of the invading guys.  I figure that's worth about half-a-star out of a possible four stars.

That point aside, it's easily the worst movie I saw from 2013.  If I was a film professor, I think I could conduct a multi-day lecture on everything wrong with this film.  Maybe I should start with the fact that it made $89 million worldwide, which also relates to the question "How did this shit get made?" Easy - it only cost $3 million.


  1. I also wasn't that impressed with The Purge either, for the some of the same reasons you cite. I wondered if "The Purge" was taken out of the script if the film would play out more or less the same. A (homeless) man breaks into or is let in a home of a suburban family after escaping a gang of psycho killers. The family is prejudiced in regards to the man.and they fear him. Homeless guy fears them and/or has stereotyped them as well. *Now* it makes sense if the younger generation is less likely to fear the man. But they would still be in danger due to the paranoia.

    For a good chunk of the film, that's what it is.Twenty minutes or so of an ethical debate, finding the man and/or is the man going to act in self defense or is he a killer too?
    I liked this section of 'The Purge'.- but in doing so, made me ask all the wrong questions such as:

    A point is made that the rich target the poor and lower class. Not much is said, however, about the poor taking up arms against the rich. More to the point, why aren't the poor stealing stuff left and right? For one night they can break into Burger King, let's say. Or Wal-Mart. Why not?

    A point is made that Purgers cannot attack any member of law enforcement, and/or their families. Yet the film isn't clear on how this is enforced. For that matter...why are there any law enforcement types to begin with at all?

    What about those who wounded during The Purge but die in the following days as a result? Is it still 'legal"?

    I found such questions I asked myself interesting if not fascinating. The film barely touches on any of them. As a result, I found myself disappointed with the film. When the neighbors came by with the twist, I was mad as hell. Predictable and lame. What a wasted chance, I thought. If they really wanted a twist, there's one that works in the film's context and it would have been so much better.

    Consider: Ethan Hawke's character works for home defenses for the rich clients. His own house is state of the art, a fortress. What if they lured in homeless guys and possible invaders like a fly in a spider's web? Then the neighbors come by, jealous it makes sense why the neighbor's security systems are not as good as Hawke's!


    1. Great post, Bitter.

      I had the same problem with the ("classier") NEVER LET ME GO, both book and adaptation.

      Everything in its world is the same as ours. Only people find it acceptable to clone human beings in order to harvest their organs, so they might extend their own lives. Living not-quite-alongside these clones.

      The problem with this premise is that it ends up being reduced to "what if human beings were the same as you know them, only they tolerated ONE vast sickening and immoral oddity in their society". Because that's so unlikely - peoples' morality isn't boxed-out like that - it ends up being a movie about people who aren't real people.

      Even Pixar's fish and robots are "real people" - they exist in a consistent moral universe; it's how we relate to them.

      But these not-quite-humans end up coming across as bogus conceits, screenwriter's fabrications. They tell us nothing about ourselves, because the characters feel off. Inorganic. Contrived. And, in the end, boring for it.

      The stock response to this is "look to the holocaust" and other such tragedies for evidence of man's inhumanity to man. But genosides, when studied, reveal terrible human stories on all sides. Stories like THE PURGE and NEVER LET ME GO fail because they're not really about humans; they're more concerned with serving a concept than illuminating how we live, think, fail, love, strive and triumph.