On Friday night, I stepped into a crowded theater to watch The Purge, and I was both impressed and bewildered by what I saw. The film, which has a killer premise about a single night during which all crime (including murder) is legal, definitely got my audience riled up, eliciting six separate moments of spontaneous applause… followed by nervous laughter.
In fact, watching the film – which starts off like The Hunger Games, then transforms into Panic Room, then morphs again into Taken – sends you on an emotional roller coaster as you try to grapple with the twisted plot. My ride felt something like this (SPOILERS abound from this point):
The Purge begins with eerie radio broadcasts and television segments breathlessly previewing the evening’s coming purge, when citizens can go “hunting” for people they hate as a way of purging themselves of their hatred. The whole tradition is presented with an unsettling amount of excited anticipation and patriotic reverence – a creepy mentality that the annual purge truly improves American society.
Of course, it helps that the whole film is set in a wealthy, Stepford-ian suburb rife with jealous neighbors whose pristine lawns and freshly painted houses are mere facades hiding their embittered relations. The idea that some of these well-to-do characters, in their pearl necklaces and pressed business suits, might wield machetes and indulge in their murderous desires, is a great hook. I was in.
2. EXISTENTIAL CRISIS
Instead of purging, James Sandlin (Ethan Hawke) and his family plan to do what most families do – lock down their homes and spend the night in quiet safety. But when Sandlin’s son Charlie briefly disarms their home to give an on-the-run homeless man shelter, a group of masked purgers quickly surround the house. Their leader tells James that they will tear down the armored gates and kill his entire Sandlin family if he does not hand over the homeless man, alive, to the gang of killers.
The ensuing 20 minutes are a cat-and-mouse game, during which James attempts to track down the man hiding in his home (this would be easy if this house didn’t have the most open floor plan in the history of floor plans), injure him, bind him, and then send him away to his inevitable death. This is where my thought process got complicated. On the one hand, Hawke seems like a monster in these scenes. He’s just going to sacrifice an innocent man to save his own ass? On the other hand, this man seems like he is going to get killed no matter what, and Hawke is trying to protect his entire family. By handing the man over, he’s not just saving his own life, but the lives of his two children and wife, as well. I kept going back and forth wondering what I wanted Hawke to do. Sacrifice a man in cold blood? Or be the protector of his entire family?
The Purge doesn’t make you ask yourself this for long. Once the gates of his home come down, Hawke transforms into Liam Neeson and decides that not only will he save the man, he will also fight every intruder that breaks into his home. Axes are swung, punches are thrown, and more than once, characters shoot other characters in the back just in time to save someone else.
Throughout this climax, as Hawke, all bloodied up and fearsome, kills the creepy college-aged hedonists left and right, my audience would not stop whooping and hollering. It was a truly strange dichotomy to be sitting in a crowd that was vocally celebrating gruesome violence while watching a movie that indicts the celebration of gruesome violence. I must admit, I got wrapped up in the action, too, and it was hard to not to cheer along as our protagonist fought the despicable purgers.
Of course, whatever goes up must come down – and that includes your spirits while watching The Purge. Much of my waning enthusiasm had to do with the fact that the film becomes quite derivative as it goes on. But there’s also an intentional gut-punch that occurs at the film’s ending. After 90 minutes, all we’re left with is a slew of dead bodies, a fatherless family (yep, Hawke dies), and a broken neighborhood that has certainly not purged itself of hate – in fact, it’s only galvanized it. Suddenly, I felt awful that I had cheered on the violence just moments before.
If nothing else, The Purge’s sad denouement and non-traditional Hollywood ending did a bit to lift the silly latter half of the film. As I walked out of the theater, I was processing the horror of an event like the purge and the complicated moral questions that go along with it. So perhaps the film did its job, after all. (If only it had done it a little more artfully.)
Did you experience a similar emotional arc?