Review: THE PURGE Satisfies Some Urges, But Not All

Featured Critic; Portland, OR
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Review: THE PURGE Satisfies Some Urges, But Not All

Some movies have good premises that get squandered in the execution, but The Purge is the other way around. It takes a bad premise and makes it work, more or less. You won't believe that any part of it is even remotely plausible, but you'll go along with it enough to get a few thrills.

The premise is that in the not-too-distant future, America has almost no unemployment and very little crime. (No, that's not the implausible part.) What either led to this or is how it is maintained -- the movie isn't clear on which came first -- is The Purge, where all crime, including murder, is legalized once a year for 12 hours. During that time, you can do whatever you want (using up to a certain class of weapon) to whomever you want (up to a certain level of political standing) without legal consequences.

If you're having trouble figuring out how an annual half-day of wantonness keeps employment up and crime down, you're not alone, and watching the movie won't help much. The general idea is that giving law and order a day off lets people vent the violent tendencies that otherwise build up and erupt unpredictably. Feel like murdering somebody? Don't! Save it for Purge Night!

The film's opening credits include a montage of surveillance footage from past Purges, in which people all over the country are seen beating one another to death in the streets. (Aside: All anybody wants to do is murder. Nobody wants to rape or steal??) Unfortunately, this misrepresents the rest of the movie, which isn't about the widespread mayhem and chaos you'd get in a Purge, but is much, much smaller in scope, focusing on a single family's ordeal while barricaded in their home. That's not nearly as interesting as a story addressing the larger societal impact, but so be it.

The family, the Sandins, live in an affluent gated community. As you'd imagine, the people most likely to come out of the Purge unscathed are the ones who can afford sturdy locks and impenetrable windows, and James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, clean-shaven for once) has made a handsome living selling security systems to his neighbors. On the night of the Purge, which commences at 7 p.m., James and his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) hunker down for a cautious but mostly unafraid night at home. "We can afford protection, so we'll be fine," Dad says, laying out the film's 99%-vs-1% subtext.

the-purge-poster-300.jpgTwo complications arise. One is that Mary's boyfriend, Henry (Tony Oller), who's older than she is and not approved of by her father, is determined to have a man-to-man talk with him at this highly inopportune time. The other is that a bloodied stranger (Edwin Hodge) is running down the street pleading for help and being ignored by all the families tucked safely away in their fortress-like homes. If the Sandins show him compassion, there's a chance it will backfire. This is the danger of compassion, and why you should never try it.

What The Purge really is, it turns out, is a home-invasion thriller. Writer/director James DeMonaco's premise gives it a twist, but it's essentially the familiar "people want to get into our house and do us harm" scenario. What makes it work is the quiet, tense atmosphere and details like the cult-ish group of masked figures who descend on the house, led by a preppy kid (Rhys Wakefield) with a polite manner and a chilling grin.

The film is a streamlined 85 minutes long, and nothing about it is elaborate. But there's a fine line between sparseness and thinness, and too often The Purge falls on the wrong side of it. It needs more backstory, more fleshing-out, and a more finely tuned examination of human nature. DeMonaco has some things to say about our society, which is fine. They'd go down more smoothly, though, if it didn't seem like he was rushing from one point to the next. You've got 12 hours! Take your time!

The Purge opens wide in theatres across North America on Friday, June 7.

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ethan hawkeLena Headey. james demonaco

More about The Purge

arturoJune 6, 2013 8:20 PM

This was just a home invasion film, i really wanted to know what was going on outside in the rest of the city, and i think that would've been a much better film, instead it was just an ok film...

Nick AllanJune 7, 2013 3:40 AM

I think you have it around the wrong way - the concept is quite interesting but the execution is woefully inadequate. All the suspense is either rushed, telegraphed or just not thought through. its an 85 min movie and we wait 40 min for much of anything to happen. then a flurry of activity before everyone gets lost in the house (how big is this house anyway?) The concept is totally unbelievable but I thought there was a great opportunity to make a valid comment on it. instead it just fizzled.

BeeDubJune 7, 2013 3:55 PM

Let me guess - the final survivor is about to be killed, but is saved by the 12-hour time period coming to an end.


Jason GorberJune 7, 2013 7:45 PM

Be happy Eric reviewed this, I found it truly repellent.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJune 9, 2013 9:47 AM

Just saw this thing yesterday: competent execution of a mid-quality anthology idea. The one thing I found off-putting -- and, clearly, it's just me -- was the smug red/blue subtext. Every CCTV clip in the beginning was from either dependable Red States or Red zones in Blue/Purple states (up-state Maine, for example).

The whole "New Founding Fathers" and the quasi-religious nature of The Purge felt to me to be a very coastal viewpoint of middle America/Tea Party land that wasn't counter-balanced by any vestige of legitimate philosophical conflict.

Even THE EAST tried to counter-balance what was clearly a philosophy-infused narrative with some counter-point to better make its case.

cinesimonJune 21, 2013 7:37 AM

The evil liberal commies on the coasts have no need to caricature America's right wing. They make insane spectacles of themselves perfectly adequately, on a daily basis.
But of course, they need that victim-y feelin'.

TheGhostOfGriffinMillJune 21, 2013 1:57 PM

My point is that when launching a wide-release film, it makes financial sense to not take a swipe at 48-51% of the audience (an issue mitigated by the low negative cost and viral-enhanced marketing).

Oh, and -- while I enjoy seeing your displays of self-satisfied politi-moral grandstanding as much as the next person -- as a born, bred and proud New England progressive, I'd point out that your appetite for sarcasm and disdain for "the other" makes you more part of any problem than solution that we as a politicized society are facing.