Directed by: James DeMonaco || Produced by: Jason Blum, Sebastien K. Lemercier, Michael Bay, Andrew Form, Bradley Fuller
Screenplay by: James DeMonaco || Starring: (1) Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder (2) Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul (3) Frank Grillo, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel, Terry Serpico, Kyle Secor, Liza Colon-Zayas (1-3) Edwin Hodge
Music by: Nathan Whitehead || Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret || Edited by: (1) Peter Gvozdas (2-3) Todd E. Miller (2) Vince Filippone || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: (1) 85 minutes (2) 103 minutes (3) 105 minutes
Most every wide-release American horror film seems to be produced by Blumhouse Productions, these days. From the Paranormal Activity series (2009-2014) to Insidious (2011, 2013, 2015) to Sinister (2012, 2015), if you pick a random shoddy scary movie produced in the last ten years in the English language, there’s a good chance it will be at least funded in part by Blumhouse.
One of the few properties native to the quasi-independent label of which I am a fan is James DeMonaco’s The Purge. While its original 2013 release was considered a small-scale letdown, its intriguing premise of a near-future police-state America in which crime is legal for one day each year, was captivating. Each of the three films released thus far play more like dark, action-thrillers with obvious political overtones than straightforward horror pictures, but many will admit fewer nightmares scarier than contending with one’s social enemies, angst-ridden neighbors, or that crazy cat-lady down the straight during an all-night crime-spree.
Cinematographically speaking, DeMonaco’s films are almost identical, emphasizing nighttime photography, handheld camerawork, and a variety of cinematic violence (e.g. hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, slasher gore-FX, etc.) to please both ultraviolent action-junkies and horror fans alike. Slow-motion sequences and creative costume-designs abound, providing unrelenting dark tone and a plethora of memorable imagery in each installment.
Where these films differ from one another is in narrative scope and scale. The first Purge feels decidedly unambitious compared to its far more epic sequels, playing like a straightforward home-invasion thriller with a non-insignificant twist. Much of the first film’s mediocre reception (its box office notwithstanding) can be attributed to its flirtation with, rather than embracing of, its wacko premise.
The second and third films, Anarchy and Election Year, respectively, throw everything but the kitchen sink at their audience, and most of it sticks. Anarchy almost plays like a modern riff on The Punisher (2004), with Frank Grillo turning in a career-best performance as an anti-hero badass who dares to have a heart on America’s most sinful holiday. Election Year plays similar to Anarchy, but with an added political conspiracy plot to raise its narrative stakes even further. In all three films, though, the action sequences are tight, intense, and violent, as well as visually coherent enough so you can see what’s going on at all times. That last attribute should never be underappreciated!
The franchise’s problems stem from its hammy acting and on-the-nose social commentary; the former mainly has to do with the series’ plethora of minor villains, while the latter involves the films’ running habit of relying on radio voiceovers, talking heads, and cheesy dialogue to convey their obvious political satire. In a sense, these weaknesses are somewhat intertwined: The hammy acting and overtly xenophobic dialogue of the franchise’s villainy hits the audience over the head with how violent conservative gun-nuts are, how powerful law enforcement is, and how parasitic the upper classes are of the working poor.
I’m a die-hard, socialist, bleeding-heart liberal, and even I think these films go overboard with their gun-toting redneck bashing. The Purge series, particularly the first entry, goes out of its way to portray the majority of the upper-class as bloodthirsty sociopaths. Conversely, the series’ depiction of gang-violence, domestic abuse, and general destruction of public property gone wild makes perfect sense, given how many would descend to petty crimes and public feuds if allowed to by law; however, these films’ — again, particularly the original, but the sequels as well — inexplicable depiction of 90% of the country club-elite as monsters without conscious, falls flat.
I don’t believe The Purge has a problem with tone. Anarchy and Election Year especially nail their dark, sardonic satire from a visual and characterization standpoint. The dialogue also improves substantially from one film to the next. All things considered, if DeMonaco had beefed up the lines of his minor villains (or perhaps removed them altogether), and toned down the social commentary from newsfeeds, radio broadcasts, and other diegetic third-party sources, his films would’ve made greater impact. As it stands now, The Purge is an ambitious franchise whose actions are commendable, but whose words are frequently distracting, if not downright laughable.
Still, James DeMonaco has demonstrated willingness to improve and change with each additional movie. You get the sense that he at least tries and tests himself with every directorial effort, despite flaunting the same weaknesses (i.e. heavy-handed themes, hamfisted dialogue). Perhaps the highest compliment I can give The Purge trilogy is that I recommend every installment, both as standalone experiences and as a broader thematic franchise. These films are genuinely intense, entertaining thrillers that mix hardcore violence, scares, and terrific costume and set-designs to create a memorable, unique diegesis. While its social message threatens to undercut its style, The Purge is, for better or worse, the modern successor to equally on-the-nose political satires like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Blumhouse Productions may have at last found its enduring franchise.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Purge paints a ridiculous portrait of America that unfortunately grows less ridiculous with each passing year. Its violence is effective both because and in spite of the off-the-wall premise and unbridled social commentary. Much of its cast give terrific performances, showcasing both action star-potential and emotional range. This series boasts unforgettable imagery.
— However… much of its cast, particularly its villains, are hamfisted in the extreme. We don’t need endless radio discussions to explain the film’s themes, nor are Confederate Flags, Iron Crosses, or White Power-patches necessary to convey that our antagonists are racist assholes.
–> RECOMMENDED: Don’t expect a straightforward horror-experience, nor much nuanced subtlety, but to its credit, The Purge is nothing if not ambitious.
? Speaking of which, why not make Frank Grillo the Punisher?