Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Movie Review: The Purge

The Purge
Directed by:  James DeMonaco.
Written by: James DeMonaco.
Starring: Ethan Hawke (James Sandin), Lena Headey (Mary Sandin), Max Burkholder (Charlie Sandin), Adelaide Kane (Zoey Sandin), Edwin Hodge (Bloody Stranger), Rhys Wakefield (Polite Stranger), Tony Oller (Henry), Arija Bareikis (Mrs. Grace Ferrin), Tom Yi (Mr. Cali), Chris Mulkey (Mr. Halverson), Tisha French (Mrs. Halverson), Dana Bunch (Mr. Ferrin).

The Purge is a nasty little horror movie whose ambition far outweighs its execution. Having said that however, considering how few movies of this ilk have any ambition at all – they exist just to be nasty genre exercises (which can be fine in their own right) – I didn’t so much mind that the movie didn’t quite live up to its ambitions, as I admired the movie for having them at all. It is an effective example of the “home invasion” horror story – a subgenre I like anyway – but it has more on its mind than that. Yes, you could pick apart at the seams of the movies, and find some plot holes – or be annoyed by one characters rather stupid actions – but I didn’t mind them very much.

The concept of the movie is that in the not too distant future, the “New Founding Fathers” or America (with a logo not unlike the NRA’s) will have solved America’s poverty and crime problems. One night a year, Americans get 12 hours to commit any crime they want – including murder – and they will not be punished. Critics (correctly) point out that it is the poor who suffer because of the annual Purge – the rich can secure themselves behind security systems, and can afford an arsenal of weaponry as backup – but the poor are left to fend for themselves – and they’re the ones who get murdered. Less poor people, means less of a “burden” they are to the rich, more jobs for everyone else, etc. Crime is now virtually non-existent, because even if you want to kill someone, why wouldn’t you just plot your crime from Purge day, and get away scot free.

The Purge doesn’t take a large scale view of this “annual tradition”, but a small scale one. James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) sells high tech security systems to the rich – and business is good. He finds out that he is the number 1 salesman for his company. He’s doing so well in fact that he and his wife Mary (Lena Headey) are putting an addition on their house – much to the chagrin of envious neighbors. The Sandins are the seemingly perfect, 1950s style nuclear family – mom at home, cooking fancy meals (“No carbs – not one”), and raising the kids – daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), who is “in love” with an older boy, and son Charlie (Max Burkholder), who is probably too smart and sensitive for his own good. The family settles in behind their security system, and plan on watching some “purge events” on TV. They are safe. That is until Charlie does something that no one else in the family would do, which sets into motion a series of escalating conflicts. There is a group of young, educated psychos out front – and they want in. And all of a sudden, James admits that the security systems he sells are quite as impenetrable as he made them out to be (“They look good, and people stay away”). The Sandins, therefore, will have to fight for their own survival.

The biggest problem I had with The Purge is the character of Charlie – the young teenage son of the Sandin’s. Much of what he does doesn’t really make logical sense. Sure, his action that sets in motion the rest of the plot does make sense – but from that point on, he acts only as the plot requires him to in order to move the movie forward, not really how a real person would act. This is one of those things you just have to accept in a movie like The Purge – because if he acts differently, you don’t really have a movie. Others may complain that the concept of the movie as a whole is farfetched – yet I don’t think it’s overly far-fetched in terms of other movies of its ilk – where characters believe they’re living in an utopia, until they come face to face with the reality of the situation, when they realize it’s not. You could also complain that the leader of the “freaks” is just a carbon copy of the gentleman killers from Michael Haneke’s Funny Games – but I prefer to see that as an homage. The killers in Haneke’s film are precisely the type of people who would embrace The Purge.

Despite its flaws, The Purge mostly works where it counts. As a home invasion film – the bad guys on the outside trying to get in, the “good guys” on the inside keeping them out – The Purge works quite well. Writer and director James DeMonaco spends much more time building up the tension – both in terms of horror and between the characters – than he does on violence and blood-letting (although, the movie has some good ones of those as well). And the film’s mixture of the high concept dystopia, mixed with the low concept home invasion film worked quite well for me. The Purge isn’t a great film – it would have to fully flesh out its political concept for that, and it never quite does – but compared to most films of its kind, it is vastly superior. Horror films are not usually released in the summer. The Purge is an example of why they should be.

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