First Purge, The (2018)
★ / ★★★★
One can tell “The First Purge” is made as quickly and as cheaply as possible when it is obvious a scene is shot in front of a green screen like some D-grade television movie. While this criticism may sound pedantic—it is only one scene, after all—it is relevant because it is representative of the filmmakers’ attitude toward their work. The picture is written by James DeMonaco, who penned the screenplay for the previous “Purge” movies, and directed by Gerard McMurray; I make a note to mention their names because they are responsible for helming a project so dull, so consistently on autopilot, and so boring, that it would be more pleasurable to take a nap at the movies than it is to struggle to keep one’s eyes open for the mediocrity being forced upon the brain.
I am especially annoyed by its lack of ambition and creativity because the three preceding “Purge” films have alluded to the fact that the annual legalization of all crimes for twelve hours started off as a social experiment. Here is a chance to deeply explore the study and yet the script is most unprepared, or simply unwilling, to deliver the requisite insight and surprises. Instead, we are fed of the usual lines involving the United States being overpopulated, resources being scarce, the social and political unrest… All of the details so lacking in freshness and common sense that if this installment did not exist, at least one could imagine more specific, exciting, and noteworthy details about how the yearly ritual came about.
Many viewers enjoy these films solely for the violence, so let’s assess the film on that level. Those who crave bloody and resourceful kills are likely to be disappointed because most kills are handled with guns—military-grade, fast, loud, eventually, and boring. The joke is on the gorehounds because considering that it is the first year of The Purge, people are reluctant to do anything. In fact, the people of Long Island, where the trial occurs before the rest of the country follows, end up throwing a neighborhood dance party.
While amusing because the material attempts to make a statement about people’s relationship with authority, their morality, and the lack of congruity between lower socioeconomic status and thirst for violence for the sake of being violent, the screenplay does not function on a high intellectual engagement and so it does not work. The lack of violence, particularly in the first half, is problematic on the level of pure entertainment because a rather large group of audience signs up to see blood and action. And when these elements do come around during the latter half, they are most generic. The script is so lazily made, it does not even have an appropriate third act.
Notice how I did not even mention the characters. The reason is because all of them are one-dimensional with nothing new or interesting to say about the state of their country. I actually waited for the moment a few of them (finally) meet their demise. Naturally, it never happened. The most toothless horror-thrillers tend to push every “nice” character (translation: boring) imaginable to survive in order to create a semblance of a happy ending. But we know for a fact that the story would not have a happy ending because the previous films prove that The Purge became a U.S. tradition, deeply embedded in the country’s rotten identity.
Purge: Election Year, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
“The Purge: Election Year,” written and directed by James DeMonaco, has the potential to become a thoughtful horror-thriller, given our current political and societal climate, but instead it relies on the same old tricks, within the genre and its predecessors, to generate superficial suspense and thrills. As a result, the picture, for the most part, suffers from the law of diminishing returns: its bite is less potent, its attempts to shock more predictable in terms of execution and final result. It is clearly an inferior installment.
The plot revolves around a returning character, Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), now a bodyguard for Senator Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), a politician determined to end the annual Purge once and for all because she believes the event is merely a ploy for the rich to control the population of the poor, especially poor minorities. Since they have less means to protect themselves, they are killed at an alarmingly disproportionate rate. She has used this platform to propel herself to become the next president of the United States. Her rivals then aim to use the Purge to eliminate the competition.
Out of the gates already showing off great level of energy, it is a great frustration that much of it is depleted less than halfway through. It can be argued that standout scenes take place in a deli where owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his friends (Betty Gabriel, Joseph Julian Soria) trade humorous banters and comment on the politics shown on television. Although they are all on the same side, they actually sit on different points of the political spectrum. If the writer-director had chosen to strive a little higher or dig a little deeper, their differences ought to have been more amplified. It certainly would have made Joe, Marcos, and Laney more interesting; we would have cared about them more.
Shootouts from afar receive more time to unfold than violence that feels personal. Such is a misstep that takes away the effectiveness of the premise. While necessary because the plot involves multiple attempts of political assassinations, thrills should not rely mostly on these impersonal long distance kills. What makes the original film so haunting is that by the end we discover that even one’s neighbors wish to hurt, maim, or kill another because of their jealousy, envy, or belief that one doesn’t deserve one’s successes and accomplishments.
Here, although there are politics that relate to real-life issues such as the 1% working the system or finding loopholes in order to take advantage of the 99% and a politician’s popularity being rooted in hatred of the Other, the script fails to put the outrage into meaningful, shaded context that it inevitably rattles us but makes us think at the same time. Instead, it chooses to focus on people shooting at each other as if it were a generic action flick.
The closest it gets to the sheer insanity of the previous films involves schoolgirls (Brittany Mirabile—whom I would love to see more in other projects—and Juani Feliz) wishing to kill Joe and destroy his deli during Purge Night simply because they were caught shoplifting the day before. This dragged out conflict stems out of stealing candy but not being allowed to get away with it. (Even though the owner chose that the cops did not get involved.) What makes it a solid subplot in this particular horror-thriller is because it is able to match the madness and energy of the premise. If only the rest were written as thoughtfully and creatively.
Purge: Anarchy, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
The problem with “The Purge: Anarchy,” in which its predecessor is not immune from, is that it gets too bogged down by the action that a wonderful concept is left rotting in the shadows. One cannot help but wonder what would result if a seasoned writer-director with a penchant for the cerebral rather than the visceral took the helm and scoped out the complexities and conundrums of an American futuristic society in which the government authorizes any criminal act—including rape and murder—for one night without lawful repercussions. I realize that movie studios are not interested in that kind of picture, but it would have been right for the material.
And so here we have the sequel to James DeMonaco’s “The Purge,” slightly better than the one that came before but not by much. Though the title promises a subversion during March 21st’s The Annual Purge, the anti-Purge group is given very little time on screen. They appear in the latter half eventually but by then it is too late. They are treated as a device rather than the central element that comes to define the picture.
Instead, time is dedicated to three groups who decide to work together to keep alive while running about downtown: Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoë Soul) are forced out of their homes by armed men; Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) find themselves stranded when their car broke down minutes before The Commencement; and an unnamed man (Frank Grillo) hopes to exact revenge. Though all of the performers have the charm to command the camera, the script fails to go beyond standard lines.
Most of the characters are given an annoying habit of talking when they are supposed to be silent, hoping not to attract attention from potential snipers on rooftops. If this were a horror movie, it would be without a doubt that they would all end up dead. When they do speak in so-called safe areas, they say nothing special or thought-provoking. One gets the impression there is dialogue only to buy time for the next action sequence in which they are once again the targets and one of them will most likely end up injured.
The climax of the picture takes place inside a compound where the rich are encouraged to bid and, if they win, participate in hunting and murdering individuals—often the poor—who were taken off the chaotic streets overnight. The scene that depicts the hunting is so poorly executed that one must squint in order to get an idea of what is going on exactly. The room is already very dark. Couple that with the camera being focused so closely on faces and bodies that when two people or more get into a scuffle, there is only confusion depicted on screen. To make matters worse, the camera moves so quickly that the director might as well have employed quick, incomprehensible cuts. The climax offers very little artistry so it is not only most disappointing, it is also not at all entertaining.
“This is my right granted to me by the government,” including other variations of it, is a line repeatedly uttered throughout the picture. It would have been a good starting point to explore the implications of the holiday of interest. For one, there is an implication of entitlement—despite having the right to do something regardless of the action actually being right or wrong.
Entitlement is a very relevant thing in modern American society and there are multiple ways to explore it—as a praise or a critique, or both. Alas, it is a shame that the film gives the impression that it must consistently appeal to the lowest common denominator. That is, it must show images of people shooting people, torture, mayhem. As far as mainstream works go, these images need not be explained within a limited standard running time.
Purge, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
It is 2022 and for twelve hours beginning seven o’clock at night on March 21st, all crime, including murder, is legal. With the exception of ten high-ranking government officials, everyone is free game to be killed. The government allows The Annual Purge because it is believed that this event helps to eliminate people’s rage and frustration which in turn minimizes crime and unemployment rates.
It pays to be rich and to live in a nice neighborhood. If one can afford various defenses and one is away from the violent hotspots, it is likely one will last through the night. The Sandin family, led by James (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Lena Headey), are ready for the yearly overnight lockdown. Zoey (Adelaide Kane) retreats to her room and Charlie (Max Burkholder) stares at the screens which monitor the outside of their home. When a black homeless man (Edwin Hodge) who is covered in blood begs for help, Charlie races to let him in. Soon, a gang of college students (led by Rhys Wakefield, very creepy) approach the front door demanding that the “homeless swine” be handed to them. Failure to do so will force them to break inside and kill everyone.
With such an exciting and original premise, most of us will be inclined to expect a lot from “The Purge,” written and directed by James DeMonaco. While the picture is able to deliver on the level of a home-invasion thriller, it is somewhat disappointing that it is not able to rise above the sub-genre and really hone in on the subject of violence on a societal scope through this one specific family. The latter is important because the film spends a chunk of its exposition showing us the media and the reality of a future that has confused correlation with causation on moral and scientific arenas.
The anticipation is executed in a concrete way. There is a lot of silence between empty conversations, like one that takes place at the dinner table, as the family’s collective fear is swept underneath the carpet rather than discussed head-on. I liked that the screenplay does not spell out everything for us. We can just feel that this family is cold toward another, from the husband and wife being a beat away from wanting to reach out and talk about what is on their minds to the family members being consistently scattered around the house when they ought to be united in purpose and space.
When the lights go out, the slow burn of looking around various rooms and sinister corners is pedestrian at times. While I was in the moment and feeling very concerned for the family’s safety, typical thriller elements eventually pile on top of one another. The more it tries to make us jump out of our seats, the more it wanes in originality. When the third act comes around as guns, machetes, and billiard balls are used to attack, disarm, and kill, it is clear that we are no longer interested in the film’s premise. Instead, the attention is on the entertainment value. I was entertained… but is it right that we should be? One can argue that since the material has focused on and has elevated the rush of violence, it has ended up contradicting its thesis.
“The Purge” is a parable, an interesting one because it holds current relevance, so it must be evaluated on two levels. First, as a film of its genre, a thriller, which I think it succeeds to a degree. It does offer a few heart-pounding sequences. Second, as a film with a message to convey, the level of focus it commands in terms of assessing people’s inherent need for violence and what it means for that yearning to be wrapped in chains for the majority of the year. This is where it is lacking. Perhaps a complete overhaul of the third act might have been a good idea.