Friday, June 7, 2013

In Theaters: THE PURGE (2013)

(US/France - 2013)

Written and directed by James DeMonaco.  Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Adelaide Kane, Max Burkholder, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakefield, Tony Oller, Arija Bareikis, Chris Mulkey, Tisha French, Dana Bunch, Tom Yi. (R, 85 mins)

The dystopian home invasion thriller THE PURGE is set in 2022 America, a few years after the "New Founding Fathers" have salvaged the economy and rebuilt the country due in large part to the annual Purge:  one night a year, from 7:00 pm to 7:00 am (perhaps the New Founding Fathers also instituted a singular, nationwide time zone), all crime is legal, with the exception of acts committed against certain ranks of government or police officials, and nothing above "Class 4" weapons can be used, presumably to rule out mass killings, domestic terrorism, etc.  By allowing these 12 hours of cathartic release--the slogan is "Release the Beast!"--everyone theoretically gets all of the aggression, anger, and negativity out of their system for 364 more days.  You can kill your boss, your cheating spouse, or anyone else who's pissed you off and be free from prosecution and the consequences.  But "Purgers" are primarily the rich and entitled targeting the poor and the perceived societal moochers, the "filthy swine" that now exist only to serve as targets for The Purge.  Critics of The Purge argue that it's just a new way for the one-percenters to take out their frustration against the less fortunate--the lower class and the homeless, though even its critics concede that it appears to be working.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) lives in a gated, suburban enclave with his wife Mary (Lena Headey), rebellious teenage daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and shy, tech-nerd son Charlie (Max Burkholder).  The Sandins are living large, thanks to James being the top sales rep with a local security company.  He sold high-tech security systems to all of his neighbors in preparation for The Purge and now has the biggest, gaudiest house on the block, which is pointed out to Mary by friendly neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis) as she drops off some cookies, telling Mary "A lot of the neighbors think they paid for all the additions to your house...but it's just neighborly gossip."  The politically neutral James doesn't necessarily agree with The Purge, but displays the blue flowers of support for it outside his house and is happy that it's provided him with so much money and material goods (he's thinking about buying a boat with its own parking garage simply because he can afford it, even as he chuckles "Who would need a car on a boat?").  The Sandins settle in for The Purge with their house on steel-vaulted lockdown, but that ends quickly when Charlie sees an injured African-American man (Edwin Hodge) stumbling down the street, crying out for help.  Charlie disarms the security system and lets the man in.  It turns out he was being pursued by a group of college-aged masked revelers and other products of privilege having a "Purge Party."  The leader (Rhys Wakefield) demands the Sandins turn over the man, a homeless war veteran, but that proves difficult when, in the confusion over Charlie disarming the system in the first place, the man is able to run off and hide somewhere in the house.  The eccentric Purge leader (Wakefield's character is in the credits as "Polite Stranger") demands James turn over the man or they'll dismantle the security system and enter to house to kill them all, explaining that "You're one of us, Mr. Sandin.  We don't want to do this to you and your family."  The family splits up to search for the homeless man and deal with other troubles--Zoey's boyfriend (Tony Oller) managed to sneak into the house earlier to have some words with James--but the Polite Stranger runs out of patience, ordering his Purging companions to launch a full-scale attack on the Sandin mansion.

THE PURGE is written and directed by James DeMonaco, who's got some experience with these sort-of "siege" situations, scripting 1998's excellent THE NEGOTIATOR and the surprisingly good 2005 remake of John Carpenter's ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13.  Hawke starred in the PRECINCT 13 remake, and he and DeMonaco are good buddies who also worked together on 2009's little-seen STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK.  DeMonaco introduces some very politically-charged exposition in THE PURGE but it soon gets sidelined as much of the film turns into your standard home-invasion thriller that owes a tremendous debt to Sam Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971) and the more recent THE STRANGERS (2008), in addition to a first-season STAR TREK episode titled "The Return of the Archons," which DeMonaco actually cited as an inspiration for the "Purge" period of lawlessness.  That's not necessarily a bad thing, as THE PURGE often works on a purely visceral level, especially in some of the incredibly violent confrontations in the third act (it's hard not to feel the adrenaline when James not only buries an axe in a Purger's back, but then blows his head off for good measure), but the very concept is crying out for more substance--more bite--than DeMonaco chooses to give it.  It doesn't really explore the critiques that it lays out--greed, entitlement, selfishness, the inherently violent nature of America today--and instead opts to become a mostly by-the-numbers thriller, at least until it's shown that the have-mores can be just as despised as the have-nots.  But even then, it builds to a weak finish, and in films like this, the house (or whatever structure is under siege) must also be a character in the sense that the viewer must know the layout and the basic floor plan, otherwise it makes no sense.  We never get the tour of the Sandin home and it's such a maze that we never really know where people are.  Once the Purgers force their way in and start pursuing the family and the homeless man, it seems ludicrous that 8-12 people can wander through a house and down long hallways and not run into anyone else for long periods.  Perhaps the intent was to illustrate how ridiculously big the house is, but I doubt it.

Given its invasion/siege plot, I couldn't stop thinking about what someone like the aforementioned John Carpenter--in full-on, angry THEY LIVE mode--could've done with this concept.  DeMonaco obviously finds Carpenter an inspiration, not just in his previous work scripting the PRECINCT 13 remake, but also in some of THE PURGE's suspense sequences being punctuated with the kind of driving, repetitious score that makes Carpenter films so identifiable.  A hypothetical "John Carpenter's THE PURGE"--or say, Paul Verhoeven or George A. Romero or even Joe Dante--other genre filmmakers who have expertly balanced suspense/horror with eviscerating social commentary--would've fully explored and fleshed-out the political ramifications of THE PURGE, while DeMonaco only hints at them early and late, with the bulk of the film feeling overly familiar.   As far as summer movies go, it's fast-moving, never boring, knows how long to stick around (the credits start rolling just shy of the 80-minute mark), and the performances are fine, especially Headey, who's very good toward the end.  THE PURGE isn't bad, but it could've followed through on its premise and been something a little more substantive.

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