Can this writer pull off one of the more ambitious concepts I’ve seen all year?
Premise: (from IMDB) If on one night every year, you could commit any crime without facing consequences, what would you do? Over the course of a single night, a family will be tested to see how far they will go to protect themselves when the vicious outside world breaks into their home.
About: Writer James DeMonaco got his career started by writing the 1996 Robin Williams vehicle, Jack, about a child who ages four times faster than other children. He went on to write The Negotiator and the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and executive produce the TV version of “Crash.” He appears to have a good relationship with Ethan Hawke as they’ve been involved in several projects together (Assault, Little New York, and now The Purge). DeMonaco made his directing debut with Little New York, and appears to be going a lot darker with his sophomore effort. The Purge stars Ethan Hawke and comes out later this summer.
Writer: James DeMonaco
Details: 94 pages (July 6, 2011 draft)
I was very confused while reading this. The story was compelling, packed with conflict, explored its characters, moved along quickly, all things you’d expect to see from a professional screenwriter, yet it instituted the “WALL OF TEXT” method of writing, with endless paragraphs dominating every page. Okay, maybe not “endless.” They were 4-6 lines long. But if you pack enough 4-6 line paragraphs together, the task of reading becomes unbearable. It takes twice as long as it should to get through every page. So I was wondering why someone who so clearly understood drama and how to craft a story was making such a basic mistake.
Ohhhhhh, I said when I did research on the writer – he was directing the script too. Now it made sense. The director wanted to be as specific as possible so he could remind himself what he was trying to do when filming began. Well, don’t let that fool the rest of you spec writers. If you’re not directing your own material, you want to keep it lean – way leaner than this.
Now heading into The Purge, I was dying to figure out one thing – how the hell they were going to pull off this premise. One of the things you’re taught when you first start writing is the idea of “suspension of disbelief.” You have to create a scenario that an audience will buy into, that they’ll “suspend their disbelief” for. If you make it too hard for people to believe in your story, nothing else matters. They check out before the story’s even begun.
And this idea had “disbelief” written all over it. Under what circumstances would a country willingly allow its people to rape, maim, torture and kill for 12 hours a year? Well, the script answers that question in a semi-satisfactory way in that it introduces a world pretty foreign to our own. We’ve gone through TWO more world wars (not just one), which has left the U.S. government money-strapped. They agree to be bought out by one of the largest corporations in the world, who then go to work on solving the biggest problem on the planet – crime.
They realize that we, as humans, commit crime, in part, due to our biological needs. We are a savage species, and therefore need that outlet. That’s how the company, Arcon, comes up with the idea to “purge” this need once a year, for 12 hours. It’s a bit of a stretch but DeMonaco is a good writer. His attention to detail and the extensive backstory behind the corporation and how it operates makes the situation fairly believable.
The story centers around James Sandin’s upper class family. James lives in a perfect suburban community with his wife, Mary, his 16 year old rebellious daughter, Zoe, and his bizarre 12 year old son, Charlie. James sells upscale home security systems, almost specifically for that one night a year of The Purge. His security system basically turns a house into a fortress, and it isn’t just others’ homes he does this for. He’s fortified his own house with the Purge Stopper as well.
And you know what? That fortress works. What James has to worry about, however, are the members of his OWN family. As The Purge begins, James quickly finds out that Zoe’s boyfriend, Henry, is hiding inside the house so he can kill him, his logic being that James is preventing Henry and Zoe from being together.
Then his semi-retarded son, Charlie, notices a bruised and bloodied man running from, what he assumes to be, hunters, and actually OPENS THE DOOR for him. So now we have crazy Henry the boyfriend inside AND this mysterious bloodied stranger. As James tries to get a handle on the situation, Henry tries to kill him. James survives, but this allows the stranger to disappear into the house.
Soon after, a band of 20-somethings dressed in some really spooky outfits surround the Sandin house and begin demanding the release of the victim (our mysterious stranger). If James doesn’t return him alive, they will infiltrate the house and kill everyone in it. This task is made harder when Charlie rebels against his father and helps the stranger hide. And then when a third faction of people move in to also have their way with the Sandins, we get a front row seat to just how crazy The Purge can get.
Okay, first thing’s first. When you have a really big concept, it’s my belief that your first scene must represent that concept! You have to show off why the concept is so awesome and therefore why we should keep reading. This is a movie about people being able to commit crimes unimpeded. So this movie should’ve started with someone performing some horrifying crime on the streets, doing something unimaginable to someone, and a police officer standing nearby just watching, not doing anything. Show off your darn premise in that opening scene!
On to the actual story. The Purge was pretty good. But here’s my issue with it. When you’re doing something dark, you gotta go dark. If you go that “safe dark,” it always feels a little cheap. What I mean is, James kills someone in the early part of the story, as he’s participating in the Purge. But it turns out the guy WANTS to be killed because he has cancer and wants the life insurance to go to his family. He’s willingly offered himself to be killed. I think it would’ve been more interesting if our main character took full advantage of this day and committed some horrifying crime himself. Now I know how difficult that would be. It makes our hero “unlikable,” but you have to figure out a way around that. This is such a nasty premise. If you’re tip-toeing around it, you’re not getting the most out of it.
But the reason it still works is because DeMonaco knows how to keep the story moving (despite the wall of text). He does a great job building the suspense. We know the Purge is coming and we know it’s going to be crazy. So that first act zips along. Then when the Purge arrives and we find out Zoe’s boyfriend is in the house to kill James, things pretty much motor along from there. There is literally never a dull moment. Something is ALWAYS happening. And that’s not easy to do when you contain your story to a single location the whole movie.
To be honest, where The Purge starts to stumble is that TOO MUCH starts to happen. I mean we end up having four different factions looking to Purge at one point, and instead of achieving the desired chaos the script is going for, it just begins to feel sloppy. I’m not saying it’s bad. I just noticed my attention starting to wander. And the third act is where the reader’s attention should be its most focused, not its least.
I also had a huge problem with Charlie, the 12 year old son. I love when writers add depth to their characters, give them quirks and characteristics that make them stand out, that make them unique. But if those characteristics are never explained, the character ends up feeling false, like they were added to check some screenwriting book boxes, not because they were required for the story. Charlie “layers” here. He wears like 4 or 5 shirts and underwear at a time. A big deal is made out of this early on, so you’re expecting to get an explanation at some point. But it never comes. I also didn’t understand why he was so adamant about letting this criminal into the house, then hiding him, even though he understood that doing so meant his entire family would be slaughtered. It’s not like we experience some early scene where we see how important life is to Charlie. We instead get him putting on 20 t-shirts…????? This character just needed some damn explanation. You can’t create a weird character for the sake of creating a weird character.
But in the end, this “Hunger Games” meets “Funny Games” concoction has just enough to keep us entertained. I just wish the story was a little cleaner in the final act.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is a GREAT reminder that a cheap-to-shoot high concept idea will always be the most likely spec to sell. This idea is huge, yet its contained to one house. Someone was guaranteed to buy and make this, even if the writer wasn’t the director.