'The Purge' Is A Great Concept That Suffers From Routine Execution

By James Jay Edwards
Released: June 7, 2013
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Film Review
The picture of America that writer/director James DeMonaco (The Negotiator) paints in The Purge is simultaneous both a utopia and a dystopia; unemployment is virtually non-existent, the economy is thriving, and the citizens of the country are just generally happy. The credit for this prosperity is given to an annual twelve hour binge of lawlessness known as "The Purge" in which all crime, particularly murder, is legalized. Some say that The Purge helps the people work through their aggressions, others claim that it rids the country of the non-productive members of society that are too poor or unfortunate to own high-tech security system. Whatever the reasoning behind it, the citizens of America embrace the annual cleansing.

The films starts on the eve of the Purge with James Sandlin (Sinister's Ethan Hawke), a salesman of expensive security systems, preparing to hunker down for the night behind the fortified walls of his home with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey from "Game of Thrones"), and their two children, Zoey (Adelaide Kane from "Power Rangers R.P.M.") and Charlie (Max Burkholder from "Parenthood"). Not long after the Purge starts, Charlie sees a bloody stranger (Red Dawn's Edwin Hodge) on the security cameras running down the street, screaming for help. The child foolishly disarms the alarm system and the man slips inside before James can arm it again. The hiding man is not the family's biggest threat, however; a bunch of hoodlums in grinning facemasks who were hunting the stranger has found their way to the Sandlin's home, and they demand that the man be turned over to them. The Sandlins need to find the man hiding inside their house themselves, and then decide whether or not to turn him over to the angry mob. Whatever they do, they have to do it fast, as time is running out for the Purge, and the hunters outside want their prey.

Psychotic celebrants descend upon a home in The Purge, a speculative thriller that follows one family over the course of a single night to see how far they will go to protect themselves when the vicious outside world breaks into their home.Photo Credit: Universal Pictures. Copyright: 2013 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The concept behind The Purge is very intriguing in a vicarious way. Everyone wonders what it would be like if they could legally assassinate their enemies; The Purge explores the concept. And it starts off with a lot of promise. The lockdown and eventual compromise of the Sandlin's home is a great setup, and the arrival of the anonymous masked band of murderers is a real attention-getter. Unfortunately, that's where the narrative starts to fall apart. For all of the creative exposition and imaginative groundwork that is laid, the film quickly becomes just another siege film. The attacks become predictable, the defenses become standard, and the whole film devolves into a stereotypical shoot-em-up. The shift comes as a disappointment, as the film is fairly suspenseful and engrossing up until that point. After that, it just stops trying. The second and third acts of the film do include a few interesting plot twists, but they are telegraphed just far enough ahead of themselves so that they aren't incredibly shocking, just a little unexpected, and even these bright spots seem too contrived to be considered surprising. The Purge doesn't even attempt to build on what little momentum it manages, instead just falling into its rut of bullets and broken glass.

The Purge is not completely without merit. The capable cast does a good job. Up until it lets the audience off the hook, DeMonaco's script is evenly paced and well-crafted. As disturbing as many of the images onscreen are, the ideas behind them are more unsettling. On a philosophical level, The Purge poses questions that are best left hypothetical: what would you do if anarchy reigned for one night, hide and wait it out or actively participate in the carnage? There are a couple of fascinating scenes before the night starts that are the most blood-chilling images in the film. In one, the Sandlins watch one of their neighbors sharpen an axe as he prepares for the sun to go down. In another, the family sees two more of their friends walk down the street of their gated and guarded community dressed like soldiers with rifles draped over their shoulders. These are people that the family likes and trusts, and they are preparing to kill their fellow citizens. The Purge illustrates a scenario where no one, not even a close friend or a longtime neighbor, can be trusted.
Scary Factor
The Purge has been presented and marketed as a horror film, but that representation is not entirely accurate. With the constant onslaught of anonymous attackers, the film does owe a debt to classic Romero zombie films like Night of the Living Dead as well as more recent home invasion movie such as The Strangers and Mother's Day. While the faceless marauders with the uniform smiley face masks are downright creepy, and Rhys Wakefield ("Home and Away") turns in a chilling performance as the polite but short-tempered leader of the gang, that's really where the horror ends. Once the stalkers stop stalking and start attacking, the film ceases being scary and becomes a full-fledged generic action movie. A film that could have been a terrifyingly tense exercise in fear ends up as just a run-of-the-mill exhibition of pointless violence.

Thriller, Horror
Release Date
June 7, 2013
Music Score