There was so much promise in the premise presented by The Purge, yet regrettably we never see anything grand. In case you haven’t seen any of the myriad ads out there, let me take you through the story of The Purge, which came out this past Friday:
America, sick of a failing economy and an increasing population falling below the poverty line, presents to its people a proposition in March 2013: a one night free-for-all where any heinous crime will be allowed. This includes murder, rape, robbery, etc. Thing is, you only have a 12-hour time period in which to do so. The idea behind this is that everyone will save up their rage and commit to a tiny window of opportunity to release the psychotic dwelling deep within themselves. After 10 years, the Purge seems to have effectively cleaned up the miscreants and ne’er-do-wells of society. There are still plenty of problems, but those are taken care of on Purge night. We arrive on this year’s Purge Night in the household of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), who has just successfully sold his company’s security system to basically everybody in the neighborhood. Things are looking up, just in time for the Purge! Could anything possibly go wrong?
A brilliant marketing campaign (and premise of course) sparked the number one film in the box office this weekend by showing all the right things in the trailers and advertisements to get people in the seats. Showing just enough dread, a group of masked visitors remind us of 2008’s The Strangers. Grainy video plays past Purge events, evoking a Hunger Games type of government. Briefly visible characters with long hair seem familiar, like the victimizers of the American version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It almost begs to be an improvement on all of the recent underwhelming horror home invasion films.
Unfortunately, the film does not turn the genre on its ear, or offer up anything really new at all. It’s rather discouraging to see a film that has such potential for dread fall flat by repeating familiar horror tropes such as poorly executed jump scares and shaky cam attacks. Problematic pacing is also significant – if the marketing campaign was so successful to get people into their seats, we didn’t need as much time (a third of the film) explaining what is essentially the movie’s slogan. We do get a chance to know the Sandin family quite a bit, but that doesn’t mean we get to like them. All four Sandin family members are fairly unlikeable and you may just find yourself hoping the Purge gets to them as soon as possible. Lena Headey as Mary is the most egregious example – she generally plays strong, willful female leads. Here she’s relegated to gasping at every shadow and hoping James will take care of everything. The son (Max Burkholder) is equally annoying, and at first his character is a bit misleading. He drives an ominous half-charred baby doll around on a remote controlled robot like a technologically advanced Sid from Toy Story to scare his parents, and hides in a closet with a shrine seemingly obsessed with Purge Night. Despite these potentially creepy and seemingly sinister set-ups, the kid is the most pacifistic of the family.
There are definitely some worthwhile moments in the film – as you can expect, when the Purge actually does begin, the tension rises and fills the barricaded homestead with an unsettling mood. This is mostly due to the marvelously menacing character portrayed by Rhys Wakefield, credited as “Polite Stranger”. His dialogue is vastly superior to anything given to the Sandins and it makes me wonder what could have been if the rest of the screenplay matched his scenes. Hawke himself is the most interesting family member, and very possibly the only character who goes through any development over the course of the film.
The film at least raises several important questions – if we were given the freedom to do whatever we wanted, would we take the opportunity? Presuming that murder outside of the Purge is still put on trial, in effect the “good” people of America would settle down and purge the “bad” people on the one night a year they’re allowed to do so. I wanted to see much more of the moral and psychological ramifications brought up in the beginning of the film, and the film seemed to want to be able to have both a slasher action and moral/psychological film, but with its scant 85 minute run-time, there was never any time to delve into both.
I wouldn’t say I’d like to *ahem* purge this from my memory, but it definitely didn’t live up to my expectations. It has some very good aspects, most importantly its premise. Luckily, the film did quite well at the box office – improving upon its budget tenfold over the weekend, we’re certain to see a Purge 2 – perhaps they can fix the problems they had with this one and make an even better film?
2.5 (out of 5, for trying at least)
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