Truly original dystopian high concepts don't come along that often. We should, thus, savour a good one when we encounter it. Logan's Run had such a thing. So did Planet of the Apes. The trick is to tweak the universe in a manner that turns society inside out, but still leaves enough familiar traces to permit a satirical edge. All the best science fiction is, after all, really about the universe in which we currently live.
The Purge's central conceit certainly meets all the above qualifications. The film doesn't always make social, psychological or economic sense. But its unforgiving take on man's natural aggressive instincts adds real menace to a thriller that might otherwise have come across as throwaway pulp.
Forerunners for this invented America – in which the state sanctions extreme recreational violence – include those in Death Race 2000 and Rollerball. Here, however, all society is invited along to the festival of evisceration.
James DeMonaco’s film supposes a country in which, for one night a year, all crimes are legal. Otherwise decent citizens grab weapons and set out to annihilate their enemies, randomly butcher passersby, or engage in outbreaks of social cleansing. At sun up, all normality returns.
DeMonaco can’t quite sell the darkest codicil of his very dark premise: the notion that such a “purge” would somehow lead to negligible unemployment, almost nonexistent crime (aside from that one night) and an overall warm Eisenhower-era complacency.
The state argues that this harmony is a result of the psychological balance that the purge instils. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that other factors may be at play: while the rich shelter in expensive gated communities, the poor are killed in disproportionate numbers. Marxists might point out that the capitalist machine requires an underclass to function with its customary ruthless efficiency.
Anyway, James (Ethan Hawke) has profited from the innovations more than most. Salesman for a security company, James has equipped all his neighbours with the shutters, alarms and locks required to survive pledge night unharmed. But he hasn’t counted on an inconvenient fact: his young son – still naive enough to embrace compassion – refuses to buy into the new amoral philosophy.
When a homeless man, drenched in blood, turns up at the door, the boy deactivates the gates and lets him in. Soon James and his wife (Lena Headey) are caught up in a moral dilemma. A gang of middle-class droogs arrive and, noting that James’s security will never stand up to massed assault, demand that the man be released. Does the family retain any trace of humanistic morality?
The film hints at a number of fascinating moral quandaries. All modern democracies require their citizens to accept outrages (drone strikes, abattoirs, institutionalised poverty) as the price for maintaining comfortable middle-class lives. In DeMonaco’s film, however, the greatest moral compromise is made unavoidably explicit. The picture also asks us to wonder to what extent we allow the state to define ethics. If the government says it’s okay to murder, then it must be. Right?
Unfortunately, those questions are nudged into the background as the film drifts into a superior house-invasion thriller. For long sections of the second half, that high concept becomes largely irrelevant. It’s just a film about a middle-class family battling with savage marauders.
So, The Purge is, ultimately, something of a missed opportunity. The actors are all top-notch and DeMonaco orchestrates the murky action with great skill. But one longs to get outside the house and absorb the wider consequences of this plunge into state-sanctioned mayhem.
There is a great film bursting to get out of this perfectly fine one.