"Well, I hope you all had a grand time tonight."
When I first saw the trailer for the new "horror" film The Purge, I was immediately intrigued by its premise: In the near future, The United States has made all crime legal for one night a year, in order to provide people with a release of all the anger & hatred that's built up inside them. It sounds like the kind of b-movie premise you'd find in a grindhouse theater in the 1970s.
The most nagging issue brought up by the trailer was the fact that it looked as though the film was going to turn out to be nothing more than a home invasion action/thriller that would merely use that premise as a springboard for some sort of pseudo-intellectual take on the perils of Libertarianism. But could it possibly pull off the seemingly impossible feat of having a cool premise and not bating the audience into falling for whatever ham-fisted moral lesson the filmmakers really wanted to impart? Read on to find out...
The simple answer is... I hate it when I'm right. Well, not always, but when I see a movie trailer and can pin down exactly what sort of movie they're going to end up making despite whatever promising setup they lay out, that's when I hate being right. Set in 2022, the film tells the story of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a home security specialist living in an affluent neighborhood in a reborn America. Some years back, the film's fictional government administration imposed a new law in which one night a year, all crime is legal, and this has brought unemployment down below 1% and virtually eradicated crime on the other 364 days of the year. James lives in an opulent home with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and slightly younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder, looking eerily like a young Joaquin Phoenix).
On the night of the annual purge, the family is dealing with normal family issues, such as Zoey's promiscuous boyfriend, the family's nosy and snooty neighbors, and Charlie's moral ambiguity on the purge event in general. Shortly after the family puts their house in lockdown, Charlie spots a man (Edwin Hodge) on one of the home's security monitors asking for help and shelter. He disarms the family's security system to let him in, and the man immediately disappears inside the home.
It isn't long before a group of masked thugs, led by a placid psychopath (Rhys Wakefield) show up, demanding that the family either turn the stranger over or face invasion of their home and certain death at the hands of good folks just looking to purge their baser instincts. The film then essentially devolves into a series of discussions about the situation's moral quandaries, balanced with a healthy dose of people being shot and/or stabbed.
I'm of two minds about The Purge. Part of me admires a film that takes risks and is bold enough to be a conceptual horror film instead of just another flimsy premise on which to hang murderous set pieces. The other part of me, though, is bothered by not only the film squandering said bold premise in favor of action nonsense, but having to wade through the filmmakers' heavy handed attempts to impart a message that's been beat to death in the media for the last few years. Politically, I am as far left as one can get, but zealotry is zealotry whether it comes from the left or right, and it's just as insulting to me when I see liberal viewpoints played out in hackneyed ways in order to make a point. The film's ultimate message about who the real monsters are made me squirm in my seat.
Having said all that, the film is not a total disaster. While I was able to figure out virtually every twist and payoff that the film would dole out, I couldn't help but admire a film clearly aiming for the lowest common denominator at least having the wherewithal to even take the time to set things up in the first place. The film telegraphs every single one of its setups, but at least they're there, which is more than I can say for other films of this same ilk (I'm looking at you The Strangers). I was also appreciative of the way they handled a lot of the exposition surrounding the purge event itself. Through television news shows and talk radio, they manage to dole out the (admittedly shaky) history of the purge in an interesting way that allows the story to just get going without stopping to explain the minutiae of it all.
The performances are as uneven as the film itself, ranging from Ethan Hawke oddly underplaying virtually everything he does, to Rhys Wakefield hamming it up like he's got stock in Boar's Head. None of the performances are particularly distracting (Burkholder wears one expression throughout the entire film, but then again, so do most eleven year old boys), but none of them are particularly memorable either. They serve this film well in that they never go too far in any direction lest they risk actually taking a chance on something.
The film was written and directed by James DeMonaco who has written similarly middle of the road fare like The Negotiator and 2005's remake of Assault on Precinct 13. I guess I just wish the film had taken a few more risks, or any risks at all to be honest. It more or less played out exactly how I expected it to, save for all the preachiness of the film's denouement, but such is the state of Hollywood filmmaking today. Films in general don't take many risks, especially those coming out in the summer months when boatloads of money stands to be made. I guess this is just another product of a film being micromanaged and focus grouped to death.
At the end of the day, I'm left with more questions than answers about The Purge. The premise concerning 12 hours of legal crime can extend to more than just murder, which is all this film is concerned with. If there is a sequel (and let's face it, if it makes money, there will be), I would hope they would focus on other aspects of this consequence free night. I would genuinely like to see this premise explored more fully, maybe even its origins or one of the first years of the purge, but since this is Hollywood, they'll probably just remake this film with a new family.
And that's what is really wrong with The Purge. It was made 40 years too late to be any good or interesting. Had this been made in the 70s by Paul Bartel or Herschell Gordon Lewis, it would be revered today for being ahead of its time. Now, it just sort of sits on screen to distract you from your own problems for eighty-five minutes, and when that's all Hollywood seems to be aiming for these days, this film really hits the bulls-eye.
Go Rating: 2/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]