Despite allegory that prevents it from folding under its absurd premise, The Purge is a near failure.
At least partially because the actors, save youngster Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), do not capture appropriate gravitas. Most of their performances are all rapid gasps, wide eyes and, “See. I’m scared now,” or “Look, I’m CRAAAAAAAAAAY-ZYYYYY,” exaggeration. Which is not to say that the actors are unwatchably bad; it’s that they all but announce their characters’ experiences and emotions, rather than subtly showing them to us.
Writer/director James DeMonaco does much the same. From heavy-handed camera angles, including one from a security camera that distorts dimensions of actors’ faces, to over-obvious dialogue (‘Look what you’re doing. Nothing will ever be okay again’) to a concluding voice over in the style of a talk-show caller (‘This country has taken everything from me’), DeMonaco ensures we remember his allegorical theme, at almost every turn.
In some movies, fealty to theme is meritorious, but here it is not, because DeMonaco sacrifices narrative. He never offers explanation for how the United States might accept periodic lawlessness only nine years from now. Nor does he suggest any organized groups oppose The Purge. Insofar as both omissions sacrifice realism, they are problematic.
Ditto that for DeMonaco’s character development. The Sandins are thinly sketched archetypes with whom we barely empathize, and the villains aren’t even that well drafted.
Then there is this fact: the Bloody Stranger (Edwin Hodge), Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and Mary (Lena Headley) all take turns disappearing from the narrative for long stretches, only to reappear again when the plot most demands their presence, for whatever reason.
In Zoey and Mary’s case those reasons are constant: we see the female Sandins when DeMonaco needs them to be helpless victims. (That Mary seems independent at the end does not mitigate the flaw, if only because her supposed strength is entirely derived from the Stranger’s military might.)
Which is offensive enough, but only gets worse when we consider how The Purge portrays other female characters, all of whom are violently insane. According to The Purge, women are are either weak or psychopaths.
Yet, somehow, DeMonaco’s social allegory remains interesting enough that the film is at least marginally thought provoking. For that reason alone, it is not a total failure.