The Purge (Universal Pictures, R)

thepurge 75Of course, this is an absurd premise, but it is absurd in the service of satire, so I am happy to go along with it.


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I have a soft spot for goofy B-movies that aim for social commentary. For me, the gold standard will always be John Carpenter’s They Live, a movie that hammers home its messages so heavily that it would be annoying if they weren’t wrapped up in an incredibly entertaining story about aliens. The Purge is a similarly goofy movie. The setup: The year is 2022. Violence in America is almost nonexistent, except for one night of the year, when all crime is made legal so that citizens can purge themselves of the violence that is inherent in human nature. Of course, this is an absurd premise, but it is absurd in the service of satire, so I am happy to go along with it.

The story: James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a husband and father of two. His family has very quickly ascended to the upper class, thanks to the fact that he sells expensive security systems to rich people who want to remain safe in their homes during the Purge. But on this particular night, his son sees a man running through the street screaming for help, and decides to let the man take refuge in their home. The gang that is after this man finds out where he is and attacks the house, forcing the Sandins to fight or die.

The film is very much of two parts, the social-commentary movie and the more straightforward home-invasion movie; the satirical elements are numerous. Obviously, it comments on the culture of violence, which is prevalent in American society. There are also strong class issues. At one point, a TV commentator mentions that some feel the Purge is designed to wipe out weaker and lower class people so that they don’t burden the economy. There is a lot of commentary about how the rich feed off the poor. America is apparently run by some “New Founding Fathers,” and it’s mentioned at one point that even during the Purge, violence against government officials is still illegal.

There is also a statement about the dynamics of a modern family, with a daughter who hates her parents and just wants to run away with her boyfriend, and a son who spends all his time in a hole in his room, looking at the world through a screen. The film’s creators certainly go for it, and while it sometimes feels unfocused, I appreciate the fact that the movie has more on its mind.

The home-invasion movie is a bit less successful. The writer-director, James DeMonaco, also wrote the remake of Assault on Precinct 13, which I didn’t see. I have seen the John Carpenter original many times, though, and this is pretty much the same story. That’s fine: Good, simple stories stand up to multiple interpretations, and Assault on Precinct 13 was just a modern riff on Rio Bravo in the first place. The problem is that DeMonaco is an inexperienced director, and the pacing of the second half is not great. He is able to build a minimal amount of suspense, but his timing in executing jumps and moments of action leaves something to be desired. There are also a few too many times when villains loom over a member of the family, only to suddenly be shot by someone off screen. That trope works once, but eventually it just gets repetitive.

To be fair, some elements do work: The evil gang members wear very creepy masks, and the ringleader, played by Rhys Wakefield, has an equally creepy face. Once the family starts fighting back, there is some good violence, which elicited cheers from my audience, none of whom, I think, realized the irony of that reaction. The whole movie is less than 90 minutes long, and I think it helps to think of it as a B-movie first, social commentary second.

Ethan Hawke has said in interviews that he doesn’t like horror movies, but over the last three years, he’s made a pseudo trilogy of them with Daybreakers, Sinister, and now The Purge. None of them are flat-out great, but they are all more interesting than they might seem on the surface. I doubt anyone will be championing The Purge a few months from now, but people who go see it wanting a horror movie will probably enjoy it, and people looking for something deeper will have a few things to mull over—even if all they think about is whether the movie actually has a point. | Sean Lass

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