The Purge (2013) / Thriller-Horror

MPAA rated: R for strong, disturbing violence, and some language
Running time: 85 min.

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Rhys Wakefield, Edwin Hodge, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French
Director: James DeMonaco
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Review published June 8, 2013

I wish there were a day every year that we, the audience, could just purge all of the memories of films like this.

The premise: In the near future, the United States' government has employed a radical new strategy to curb crime: allow nearly complete anarchy for 12 hours, one day every year.  This day is known as "The Purge", whereby U.S. citizens are free to commit any crime they like, including murder, without fear of penalty.  Emergency services are suspended; the police cannot be called, and the hospitals will not come out to rescue anyone.  The results have met with great success; violent crime on any other days has been reduced to nearly nothing, and unemployment is nearly unheard of. 

The film mostly follows the latest Purge for one particular well-to-do family, the Sandins, who do not indulge themselves in any of the unsavory activities, choosing to lock up their highly secure home (the family patriarch, James (Hawke, Sinister), sells these security systems for a profitable living) and just wait it out in their gated community.  Things look to be fairly calm until the youngest Sandin, Charlie (Burkholder, Friends with Money), lets in a man (Hodge, Die Hard with a Vengeance) running in fear of his life.  If this stranger weren't potentially dangerous enough to be in the house, they are soon visited by the mob of 'Purgers' who were out to get that man, who give the Sandins an ultimatum: hand over the man for his "purging", or be prepared to die themselves when they storm in the house.

A nifty, allegorical premise (it reminded me a bit of Assault on Precinct 13, which had a remake also scripted by James DeMonaco and starring Ethan Hawke) is practically wasted in what ends up being a fairly routine 'house under siege' flick that is undone by director DeMonaco's need to introduce silly horror movie theatrics rather than go for the grit and realism of a true nightmare.  The satire on class warfare, on how it's not the have-nots that one need fear, but rather, the haves, is certainly ripe for a gutsy filmmaker to tear into.  One would gather that the homeless, poor and disenfranchised might be the ones rise up and take down those who feel they are oppressed by during a Purge, but not so in DeMonaco's vision.  As the poor cannot afford high-security systems, high-powered weaponry, or, in the case of the homeless, any sort of shelter, they are the ones most vulnerable to attack. 

The aforementioned theatrics, in which the fascist gang of killers not only visits the Sandin home in cool-looking evil-grin masks, but play it all up as if they are relishing every second of it, is where the DeMonaco's film eventually goes haywire.  They're a bit reminiscent of the gang of hooligans in A Clockwork Orange, except these folk are one-percenters looking to rid the world of the moochers of society, i.e., the homeless man who is seeking sanctuary in the large family home.  Where DeMonaco goes too far is the need to try to make the film 'scary', especially by having the hooligans use the security cameras outside as their personal theater of the macabre, including, somehow, making jump-cuts and edits in the live feed to give their visage that extra-frightening appearance of other-worldliness. 

As the delivery is lackluster, it allows for too much time for finding logical holes of the main premise itself.  The biggest question is: Why would we ever think that a half-day to purge all of one's angst would ever generate peace on the 364.5 other days in the year, when some of the crimes are so heinous, surely there would be lots of people engaged in revenge on the misdeeds perpetrated on them and their loved ones?  Violence really does beget violence; it would take the patience of Job to wait another year for a chance at some payback when your family has been raped and murdered in front of you.

A few other nitpicks -- why would the snooty, private school hooligans decide to try to bust into the house wearing their masks?  First of all, there is no need for the masks when they will be absolved of all of their crimes. Assuming they wear them for the sheer intimidation factor, or even for their own smug need for style points, it is ridiculous to impair their peripheral vision when trying to navigate the darkened hallways of a house they are unfamiliar with, or to try to use a weapon against a moving target.  And why do they spend so much time and effort to smoke out one 'homeless pig'?  Wouldn't they be potentially letting many more live by spending their entire remaining hours just trying to get to one? 

One other thing that irked me is the sexual objectification of nearly every female character within the piece, with the teenage daughter (Kane, "Power Rangers: R.P.M.") especially looking like she's wearing a fetish schoolgirl costume for Halloween.  And speaking of the daughter, she has a boyfriend (Oller, "Gigantic") that her dad disapproves of; boyfriend thinks that the way they can be together is by offing the dad?  I would think that might be a deal breaker for the relationship, regardless of whether it is legal to do so.

Ethical themes loom, but they are all for naught, as there is little payoff other than for things to get violent in a hurry as the climax comes into play.  The storyline is full of predictable turns of events, with each potential killing of a prominent main character leading to an expected killing of the would-be killer at the last possible second.  At under 90 minutes, the film is economical, but that also means that no character touch is introduced without it coming in to play later on during crunch time. 

Had The Purge gone for a more realistic approach to society run amok, we'd have the potential for a truly harrowing, dystopian vision of a sick future that would reap many of the fruits sown from the societal commentary of the main premise.  Alas, DeMonaco overplays the hand by also trying to make the film "entertaining" through being cartoonish and all too obvious in his approach. The ideas are certainly intriguing, but the execution of all of the executions makes for a routine night at the movies.

-- Followed by The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

 Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo