Review: The Purge
PLOT: A family must fend off a gang of psychopaths in a future where the U.S. government has sanctioned one night a year to be completely lawless - anyone can commit any crime they please.
REVIEW: The biggest problem with THE PURGE has been apparent since the trailers first arrived: the filmmakers have taken a truly fascinating premise and done little more with it than make a predictable and derivative genre movie. Writer-director James DeMonaco reels us in with a tantalizing pitch: one night a year, all crime is legal. Murder, rape, breaking and entering, whatever. All of our pent up rage is unleashed and, presumably, we’re the better for it later on; cleansed of our collective anger on that night, the rest of the year is almost free of crime.
The possibilities are numerous - and perhaps that’s a daunting proposition, which may explain why DeMonaco opts to treat us to a thriller in the mold of STRAW DOGS or THE STRANGERS. To his credit, DeMonaco fashions a serviceable thriller that moves along quickly and efficiently. It just could have been so much more.
It’s the year 2022. A new regime in the American government called the “New Founding Fathers” have created The Purge which, as explained above, acts as the equivalent of a massive, violent primal scream on the part of the citizens. Some say it’s a tactic to wipe out the poor and infirm, since the easiest targets are the homeless, the sick, the weak. Whatever its true intentions, the Purge evidently works, as unemployment is at an all-time low and society is functioning more or less benignly .
Who are these “New Founding Fathers” and how did they arrive at this improbable idea? We’ll have to wait for another PURGE to find out; the movie isn’t so much interested in exploring the hows or whys - it’s content to use this ambitious concept simply as a jumping off point for predictable home invasion thrills..
The people who have it good, like the Sandin family at the center of the story, are able to install elaborate security systems in their homes, effectively barricading themselves inside for Purge night, which lasts about 12 hours. Ethan Hawke’s James Sandin is actually a home security salesman, so he finds the Purge quite beneficial: it has paid for his family’s gigantic house and lavish lifestyle. It’s difficult to tell if Hawke’s constant vocal support of the Purge is because he believes it’s achieving the desired effect, or if it’s because it puts money in his pockets, but his family appears to be uneasy with the event, especially his inquisitive son, Charlie (Max Burkholder).
It’s Charlie who springs the story’s action into being when he saves a wounded vagrant (Edwin Hodge) from a pack of crazed killers intent on murdering the man. Once the vagrant, who may or may not be dangerous himself, is trapped in the Sandin’s home, the “freaks” outside threaten to “Purge” the entire family unless they give him up.
These villains are indicative of the movie’s short-sightedness: wearing scary masks ala THE STRANGERS, wielding machetes and shotguns and ominously playing in the front yard, they’re typical horror movie weirdos who would seem psychotic Purge or no Purge. When your movie is about a night that ANYONE can commit murder, why focus on clearly maniacal creeps who would fit right in with the Manson family? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to see “everyday” people taking part of the Purge? What’s it like out in the real world, where well-adjusted folks are temporarily going insane? (DeMonaco does hit on this idea briefly toward the very end, but it’s he botches the execution, which leads to more laughs than gasps.)
Essentially, THE PURGE is yet another hide-and-seek movie where a family has to thwart intruders who sneak around the house and pop out of dark corners. DeMonaco is adept at staging lingering scenes of suspense, and a few of the jump scares work pretty well. The film is well-made from a technical point of view, with Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography proving to be an eerie highlight. in the third act, DeMonaco gives the audience plenty of stand-up-and-cheer moments, as the family finds the strength to defend themselves against the frightening odds.
But once it’s all over, the only thing that really sticks is the disappointment of the wasted potential. Recently it was announced that the producers (including Michael Bay and genre specialist Jason Blum) are preparing a sequel. I shudder to think that it’ll be more of the same; these guys should really be thinking outside the “home invasion” box and seek out the true possibilities the central idea of THE PURGE provides them with.