We first see prostitute Zara (Amanda Pilke) running through the damp night and collapsing in front of the backwoods cabin owned by Aliide (Liisi Tandefelt), a reclusive old woman with a tough-as-nails face and a strong distrust for her scantily dressed surprise visitor. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Zara was abducted by ultra-violent Russian sex traffickers, and subsequently escaped her domineering pimp. Yet coming to Aliide’s residence isn’t entirely promising for the wretched girl, as she’s immediately locked in the guest room while Aliide, jutting out her hair-speckled chin and fingering the pistol she keeps around the house, decides what to do.
“Purge” is a binge of suffering from start to finish. Rape, wartime violence, death, torture of women and children -- it’s all there in abundant amounts, pressed up in our faces with a frantic handheld camera. The drama is so hyperbolic and without reprieve that it has a numbing effect. The score's heavy strings, which lace the film, are like smacks on the head, telling us when to feel upset. I find that humorless drama is a tonal flattener. In the midst of immense suffering, there should be the occasional thing, even if darkly tainted, to make us laugh. But as my dad half-jokingly says, “The Finnish only get about six hours of sunlight per day.”
Despite the whack-a-mole self-seriousness, “Purge” left me intrigued. Aliide’s character defies the typical arc. Instead of overcoming the obstacles ahead of her, she recoils at them, joins them, and buries all the unwieldy parts of her conscience deep inside herself. Meanwhile, the pint-sized Zara, who enters the film a broken person, has a shade more brutality in her than meets the eye. It’s a portrait of coping and the ambiguities of self-protection.
It’s also a portrait that is strongly influenced and no doubt aided in its international popularity by the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series. Stieg Larrson’s gritty mystery trilogy fixates on female victimization, Nordic counterculture, Europe’s ugly 20th-century past and the old guards who have been hardened by that past. It has a flair for the exploitative, which I was pleased to see “Purge” indulge in during its final minutes. It’s not giving too much away to say that Aliide turns into one steely granny in her old age, unwilling to cower to any pimps who come gunning for her door. After all, she’s lived through Communism and fascism -- the present is a piece of cake.