Purge, The (United States, 2013)

June 07, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Purge, The Poster

When critics bemoan the dumbing down of movies, they're talking about stuff like The Purge. This is quite possibly the most moronic motion picture I have seen thus far in 2013 and that's saying a lot. The movie has obviously been constructed for those who watch the screen with one eye while texting or doing something else with the rest of their body. I guess it's a perfect drive-in feature where the most important elements are providing a little light (but not too much) and justifying a parked car.

The concept of "suspension of disbelief" has been around for a long time. To some degree, it's a necessary component of nearly every non-documentary. One has to be able to accept and believe in the reality of a movie, no matter how outlandish, in order to care about the characters and what happens to them. Some films, particularly fantasy, science fiction, and horror, have a more difficult job than others "selling" viewers. But it can be done. George Lucas did it with Star Wars. Peter Jackson did it with The Lord of the Rings. John Carpenter did it with Halloween. Sad to say, James DeMonaco utterly fails to do it with The Purge. The premise sounds flawed and silly and DeMonaco fails to convince us otherwise. From the very beginning, The Purge places us on the outside looking in - position that makes it easier to identify stupidity and contrivance, the two building blocks upon which this film is founded.

It's 2022. Although the introductory caption doesn't mention it, this is obviously a parallel universe where frontal lobotomies are routinely performed on infants. That's the only explanation for the idiocy that permeates the movie. At any rate, the U.S. is in great shape. Crime is sharply down. Unemployment is under 1%. The good times, which come in the wake of a quadruple dip recession, are credited to a single social policy: The Purge. Every March 22 for 12 hours, criminal law is suspended. People can do whatever they want, even murder, without fear of legal consequences. It's a time when they can either give freedom to the "inner beast" or hunker down in fortified homes and ride it out.

If you don't buy into this, and DeMonaco does little in the way to make it even remotely plausible (he has a couple of short clips of "talking heads" attempting to explain why The Purge works and their infantile explanations might convince someone who believes in Santa Claus), you're sunk. This isn't one of those movies where you can ignore the background and live in the moment because we're constantly being reminded of the reason why all this is happening. Moments that are intended to be tense and suspenseful are instead tedious and silly. And DeMonaco's stabs at social commentary (about the wealthy using The Purge as an excuse to thin out the poverty-level population) seem like too-thin icing.

Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey play James and Mary Sandin, upwardly mobile suburbanites living in a gated community who have the latest security system installed on their house. James sells these systems and nearly everyone in the community owns one. (For some reason, they seem to resent James making a commission on all these sales; I fail to understand why.) Along comes The Purge and the two adult Sandins lock themselves inside along with their teenage children, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane). Zoey's 18-year old boyfriend has sneaked in but he's not around long enough to do much. He pulls a gun on James and is promptly knocked off. This time around, Ethan Hawke isn't playing a wuss. Anyway, the sensitive Charlie sees a black man (Edwin Hodge) running through the neighborhood screaming for help. So, of course, Charlie shuts down the security system and lets the man in. Turns out, he's the prey for a group of Purge-hunters led by a creepy Aryan (Rhys Wakefield). They're pissed that he's being sheltered and offer the Sandins a ultimatum: release the man so he can be lynched or face the consequences.

I think the filmmakers, led by producer Michael Bay, missed a golden opportunity. They already have Ethan Hawke - why not sign Julie Delpy to play his wife? At least then we could have appreciated the previously established dynamic between the two. Hawke is obviously here to pick up a check so he can keep making films like Before Midnight, and I have no problem with that. While I'm a Headey fan from way back (before 300 and Cersei Lannister), it would be an understatement to observe she's not invested in this character. The two young actors, animated vocal actor Max Burkholder and Aussie Adelaide Kane, do adequate jobs: it's not their fault their characters are constructed out of horror movie clich├ęs and contrivances.

If you asked DeMonaco, he would probably elaborate on how The Purge is intended as an allegory and he envisioned this to be seen as a cautionary tale. Those are fine sentiments but what I got from the film is a below average, standard-order home invasion tale with creepy masked bad guys jumping out of the shadows to startle us while the good guys follow the generic rules adhered to by horror movie scream queens. The fact that there might be a political message buried in there somewhere only makes the entire package more questionable and less appealing. This is a February movie that somehow found its way onto the June release calendar.

Purge, The (United States, 2013)

Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield
Screenplay: James DeMonaco
Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret
Music: Nathan Whitehead
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2013-06-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1