The Purge

This isn't Avon calling.

This isn’t Avon calling.

(2013) Sci-Fi Thriller (Universal) Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Tom Yi, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French, Dana Bunch, Peter Gvozdas, John Weselcouch, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Karen Strassman, David Basila, Boima Blake, Nathan Clarkson, Chester Lockhart. Directed by James DeMonaco 

We all need to blow off steam. Think of human beings as walking pressure cookers. The stress inside us just builds and builds and builds until we need to let it out one way or another. The more complicated and stressful our world, the more extreme the release is needed.

In 2022, America has been taken over by the New Founding Fathers which seems to be a crypto-fascist regime with evangelical Christian overtones – in short, a kind of paranoid Hollywood liberal version of the Tea Party. They’ve managed to reverse some of our modern society’s most pressing problems; unemployment is down to 1% and crime is down to near-zero.

That’s because of the Purge. One night a year, for 12 hours, anything goes – including murder. You can go out and burn down a bodega because you don’t like the owner or better still, burn it down with him in it. Got an issue with your boss? Go down to his house and gun him down. It’s all legal. Think of a night of wilding with a Get Out of Jail Free card attached.

Of course, the wealthy can afford state of the art home security systems, turning their homes into steel-reinforced fortresses. James Sandin (Hawke) has made a fortune selling these home security systems – most of his neighbors have one. In fact, James himself has one. As Purge night approaches, James drives through the neighborhood with the air of an ancient lord who’s provided shelter for his kin and his vassals.

His wife Mary (Headey, the villainous and incestuous Cersei from Game of Thrones) prepares the house for the night’s activities. As a show of support for the Purge, she places a vase of blue flowers out in front of the house. Tightly wound neighbor Grace Ferrin (Bareikis) delivers cookies; her annual Purge party is on hold tonight.

The sun goes down and the hour draws near. James gathers his family – sensitive son Charlie (Burkholder) – you can tell he’s sensitive because he has long hair and an unspecified medical condition that requires his vital signs be constantly monitored – and rebellious teen daughter Zoey (Kane) who is sulking because her parents have forbidden her to see Henry (Oller), an 18-year-old who she is head over heels for but is too old for their 15-year-old princess. Not to worry however – he’s snuck into her bedroom and is there for the duration, promising to plead his case man to man with Dad. Sirens wail. The Purge is on and the police, fire department and rescue services are all closed for business until the morning. The father settles in for an evening of watching security cameras and maybe a movie, complete with microwave popcorn. It’s evening in America.

Of course, things go terribly wrong as they surely must in a movie like this. Sensitive son Charlie sees a bloody stranger (Hodge) outside pleading for help. He inputs the code sequence to disarm the security system, giving the stranger time to come into the house. James, having a mini-arsenal as part of his home security system, draws a gun on the new arrival in a tense standoff in the foyer. Then Henry shows up and opens fire on dear old dad. James, being the hero, returns fire and Zoey is abruptly back on the boyfriend market again.

To make matters worse, the group of mask-wearing freaks that were chasing the stranger arrive and demand that the Sandins give up their rightful prey. The leader (Wakefield) of the group, mostly dressed in prep school uniforms, is creepy-polite and warns of dire consequences if the homeless pig isn’t given up. In the confusion, said homeless pig makes himself understandably scarce. With the power cut off and James admitting ruefully that the system is more for looks than an actual deterrent in case of a frontal assault (God bless capitalism), the Sandins are in for a very long night (in a very short movie).

I think DeMonaco, who also wrote The Purge, was going for a bit of political symbolism here disguised as a home invasion thriller that is supposed to be a commentary on our society’s fascination with violence as well as a dig at conservative values (nearly all those who Purge are what you would consider wealthy white conservatives; nearly all the victims are minorities except for the Sandins themselves) and liberal paranoia. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite pull it off.

Hawke and Headey are capable actors but like most of the characters in the movie, the parts they play are largely caricatures broadly drawn with little or no depth and none of the people we see onscreen act like real people you’d meet offscreen. The lead family may be the most unintentionally dumb heroes in the history of cinema.

And therein lies the main fault with the movie, the lapses in logic that are so blatant and major that you can’t believe that someone at some point before approving this script didn’t ask a few questions. For one thing, if you were a wealthy family, wouldn’t you arrange for a weekend trip to, say, Canada? Or Mexico? Or anywhere but here? That’s a plot hole that could have been fixed quite simply – during the scene when the rules for the Purge are delineated, add another one – all citizens must be home for the Purge unless on government or military business. However, the filmmakers don’t do that so Da Queen, logical moviegoer that she is, spent the whole of the film obsessing over it.

And why would anyone give their kids the codes to disarm the home security system on a night where murder and mayhem are roaming the streets? What parent would trust the judgment of a hormonal teenager or a sensitive young kid when the stakes are life and death?

I could go on and on but you get my point and this isn’t a movie that deserves that much attention. I’m a card-carrying liberal and even I felt a little uncomfortable with the characterization of Tea Party conservatives as homicidal Stepford Wives (and Husband and Kids) who place personal security and economic stability over the lives of people, or of Young Republican preppies as viewing the homeless as sub-human scum who exist to give them a buzz and for no other reason. I have my issues with Tea Party policies but I do draw the line there.

The entertainment value here is reasonable, mainly because Hawke and Headey are so likable, but as social experiment this is just short of an epic failure, although I have to admit that the cathartic moments when the bad guys get theirs was somewhat disturbing within the context of the movie and maybe the lone success the movie has was prying that uncomfortable feeling that violence was being used to wring out that reaction out of me. Maybe we aren’t that far from our caveman ancestors as we like to think we are.

REASONS TO GO: Decent enough concept..

REASONS TO STAY: Horrible execution. Too many plot holes, some of them major.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of swearing and plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this past weekend the movie had made back more than 20 times its original budget and a sequel has already been greenlit.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 38% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; not a whole lot of love from the critic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: A Lonely Place to Die

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