Saturday, June 8, 2013

"The Purge"

 3 / 5 

I wanted to like The Purge a lot less than I did.  I wanted to find it offensive and reprehensible, vile and thoughtless.  But even if The Purge doesn't quite manage the biting social commentary it hints at, there are interesting, provocative thoughts here, and a thriller with a half a brain is far better than most.

The Purge covers some of the same territory as such allegedly serious-minded fare as Michael Haneke's Funny Games, Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs -- both films that have ardent admirers that I've never been able to get all the way through.  There are also some resemblances to the execrable 2008 "thriller" The Strangers, a movie that existed solely to delight in the extreme misery of others.

The Purge is better than any of those movies, and I found it less vulgar and misanthropic than any of them because it starts with a better premise: A few years from now, Americans are so disgusted with the state of their country they willingly accept an outlandish compromise from a group of politicians who rather optimistically call themselves "The New Founding Fathers."  The idea is that once a year, it's every man for himself in a night of extreme violence known as "The Purge."

During the Purge, virtually all crime is allowed (there are a couple of exceptions that exist solely to try, unsuccessfully, closing many of the logic loopholes a premise like this opens up), the idea akin to instant Darwinism: Those who are wealthy, smart, sane or lucky enough will survive the night, and those who aren't, well, good luck to you.

Even if it plays its political ideology a little heavy handedly, the setup of The Purge is terrific, and the first forty minutes or so of the movie are its best.  James and Mary Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey) live in the Pottery Barn splendor of a massive McMansion with their two kids, technology obsessed Charlie (Max Burkholder) and pouty, teenaged Zoey (Adelaide Kane).  Dad makes his living selling high-end security systems specifically designed for Purge Night, which line his pockets and those of the company he works for.  The neighbors are bitchily aware that their need to purchase the pricey systems is what keeps the Sandins in such splendor.

The results of Purge Night are presented as undeniable facts: Unemployment is at 1 percent, productivity is higher than ever, and America the Beautiful is back to being just that.  Crime is low because once a year, the criminals mostly do each other in.

So, as the Sandins settle in for a night of minor worry deep within their bullet-proof fortress, they're at t the top of the elite heap, even if their neighbors are more than a little jealous.  Nothing can harm them, and that's the beauty of the Purge; those who can protect themselves are immune both to the violence itself and to the nasty ethical implications associated with it.  They can just watch awful people do awful things to each other on TV and then, 12 hours later, pretend it never happened.

But during this Purge Night, a desperate, hunted stranger makes his way to the Sandins' house, and young Charlie lets him in.  That opens the family up to a number of problems, exacerbated by one other (rather silly) intruder in their midst.

All of that makes for a great, tense first half, but when the violence begins, director James DeMonaco loses a bit of control.  There's some, but not much, dramatic tension to be had in a family defending themselves against a gang of thugs.  It all becomes about who does what to whom, and how violently, and that causes The Purge to run out of steam prematurely.

After a solid 30 minutes of carnage, The Purge tries to get back into the territory of political and social commentary, but it has a difficult time finding its footing.  More importantly, it forces the audience (at least the one I saw it with) to cheer and glorify much of what they're seeing; while the act of making the audience complicit is potentially interesting, The Purge seems to want the audience to root for the bad guys to be sliced and diced, which is disappointing after the time it takes introducing some insightful moral and ethical quandaries.

Yes, The Purge is, in the end, a violent exploitation film.  But like some of the best exploitation films, it approaches its topic from some interesting angles.  It reminded me of an extended, ultra-violent version of a great Twilight Zone episode, one in which the point is somewhat muted by engaging in the very acts it purports to be satirizing.

The Purge never quite hits the very high marks it has set for itself; some may say it never even comes close, though I was more forgiving, because the fact that it even dares to try makes it more worthy, and more satisfying, than most modern thrillers.

Viewed June 7, 2013 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks



  1. I just returned from watching the film, and I must say, I agree with about 95% of your review. It was brutal (to be expected) but I think the directors could (and should have) taken the premise out to the direct storyline. What about all the other people killing out there? I realize the plot was about the Sandins, but what about everyone else? The premise was NO police, hospital or any other help. Were all the mental facilities open for business? Were there any mental hospitals? Can philandering husbands kill their wives, and vice versa? I wanted more details. I give the movie a solid 8; it was short enough to keep my attention, and the plot was great. Although, I did peg those neighbors early on ;)

  2. LunsfordPhotography: There were gaping plot holes, but the premise held my attention enough. Your question about wives and husbands seems to be addressed by one incident in the movie, the big question being one the movie briefly touches on: Where would that violence end, and how would everyone feel the next day? A purge would seem to lead to some consequences and pretty deep feelings, and if the movie doesn't address those, in the context of what it is, it doesn't need to: It leaves us wondering those questions, and given how few movies pose any questions at all to leave the audience with, that's pretty impressive in itself.