Movie Review: The Purge
Director: James DeMonaco
Reviewed: 24 July 2014
The Purge's premise is that in the near future, the United States will be reborn and its new founders rise to power by allowing the populace a twelve hour purging of violence and hatred every year. In a sort of bizarre twist on Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," neighbor can turn against neighbor, rich against poor, family against itself, all against the legal and permissible backdrop of the government's system. According to experts, the idea of the purge makes society more safe and controllable. "Would you kill someone tonight, dad, if you wanted to?" asks the wide-eyed preteen son of Mr. and Mrs. Sandin (Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey). "Yes," the father replies, "but we don't feel the need to do so." Instead, the well-to-do Sandins, flush with the nicest house and most advanced security system in the neighborhood, hunker down with their myriad cameras, content to watch the rest of the world on this one night of lawlessness, revenge, and chaos. Of course, the chaos arrives at their front door, and when the youngest Sandin, Charlie (Max Burkholder) opens their security system to save a homeless man being hunted, the hunters find themselves standing at the gate, knocking to be let in, wearing creepy masks. And daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) may have let more in quite unknowingly as well.
The premise is better to think about than to watch in execution. Playing off our post 9-11 fears, The Purge could have reached for more resonance with our modern era, but instead it is content to degenerate into a home invasion chase movie with jump-out scares and a completely nonsensical geography. It made me think of home effectively some movies with a confined space establish their sense of geography like, say, David Fincher's Panic Room. Here, there are conveniently places to run for fleeing family members at all times, and characters always pop out at the right time. It takes place within a gated community among members of a certain class. The opening shots hint at what happens in urban centers and play with the idea of purging being a way to regulate society, to eliminate the poor, to maintain an equilibrium. I wish the film had the courage to explore those convictions or even consider violence such as war; to see The Purge through a post-Iraq and Afghanistan lens where many of our soldiers are inordinately members of the lower classes sent into danger by those safely ensconced in power would be a potentially explosive reading. There are already elements of "The Most Dangerous Game" where man hunts man. But, the film is more content to show Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey roaming around their home with shiny, photogenic weaponry. Alas. And the director fails to convey Hawke's character's change of heart with any sort of clarity. The story needs him to change directions, so he does. That's it.
I'm not saying it is not scary. To watch it in a dark house with the shade on the front window blowing in the breeze and casting weird shadows over everything, with noises amplified tenfold in the night, and with a consciousness of I'd better not scream and wake up my sleeping nine-month old, The Purge has its moments. But I would not recommend it or want to watch any part of it again; there really is not much going on under its mask, unfortunately.