Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Rhys Wakfield, Tony Oller
MPAA Rating: (for strong disturbing violence and some language)
Running Time: 1:25
Release Date: 6/7/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | June 7, 2013
Here's a premise rife with potential. In the near future of The Purge, the government, having been forced to come up with a solution to high crime and unemployment rates, sanctions a 12-hour period once a year during which almost all crime is allowed. It works, at least according to the statistics at the beginning of the movie. Throughout the rest of the year, crime is almost nonexistent, and so is unemployment.
The reason for the former seems to be the idea behind the Annual Purge—that human beings are violent by nature. Given the outlet to sate those urges once a year, it's enough to hold over the majority of the population.
The reason for low unemployment is the most devious result of the yearly event and one that gives the setup of the movie some real political bite. The Purge, you see, is not seen as some kind of wish fulfillment, where people can take what they need or do what they want without any repercussions, but is instead a violent form of social engineering.
It's survival of the fittest, where the fittest are those who can afford weapons or high-tech security systems that turn their homes into fortresses. It's also a way for those who perceive themselves as slighted by the existence of the homeless, the poor, and the unemployed—or, to use the parlance of some who subscribe to a certain political philosophy, the "takers"—to go out "hunting" to rid society of those who make it less "perfect."
It's a genocide, plain and simple, but one—as such horrific endeavors throughout history often are—dressed up in patriotic garb and made out to be perfectly ordinary (The movie's opening credits run over images of brutal murders set to the calming music of Claude Debussy). Participation, whether through active slaughter or passive support, is not an option but a "duty" in this United States in the year 2022.
Needless to say, it's a splendid setup, loaded with innate dread and moral outrage, but it's only the backdrop for what eventually becomes a conventional but well-executed thriller about a family under siege in their home from an external threat that will kill them if they're able to get inside. The only thing standing between the family and the agents of death is a moral quandary: Is protecting the life of a complete stranger—an innocent victim—worth risking the lives of oneself and one's family?
That's the dilemma that eventually faces the Sandin family. Patriarch James (Ethan Hawke) sells security systems and has sold them to just about everyone in his neighborhood, allowing him to add a new addition to the family home. His wife Mary (Lena Headey) gets the sour end of some passive-aggressive resentment from their neighbors for her family's good fortune on the neighborhood's dime. There's a nice touch in this bickering, which the movie does eventually expand upon; eventually in this worldview, everyone could be seen as a "taker."
Their daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) is rebellious. Their younger son Charlie (Max Burkholder) is driving a remote-controlled car with a creepy damaged baby doll on top and camera within it around the house.
Once the Purge begins and the family is locked inside their house, it becomes even more awkward. Zoey's boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) has snuck into the house before lockdown to convince her father that he's good for her, and Charlie is eventually left alone with the controls to the security system, where he watches the exterior of the house on monitors.
An injured man (Edwin Hodge), yelling for help, appears on the monitors. Charlie, in an act of impromptu compassion, opens the metallic barricades for him. The mystery guest disappears inside the house, and a group of students from an elite school, led by a polite psychopath (Rhys Wakefield), comes looking for its prey. If the Sandins do not hand over the group's intended victim by the time the tools needed to break into the house arrive, they will kill everyone.
For James, the solution is clear: find the stranger, subdue him, and send him out to meet his fate. The rest of the family—especially Charlie, who tries to lead the man to the boy's hiding place (We never get a clear understanding of the geography of the house, which seems to have spaces appear just for the necessities of the hunt)—isn't entirely convinced. The broader context of the movie's backdrop, which does not exactly suit the restricted setting to which the story becomes relegated, is necessarily reduced to the very personal predicament facing the family. It's one thing to theorize about the need for the Purge, but when one of its victims is staring these supporters in the face, the system becomes harder to justify.Then the necessary confrontations arrive, and it becomes obvious that the concept for this dystopian future is only an excuse for a series of standoffs, shootouts, and fights. Writer/director James DeMonaco stages these encounters with visceral intimacy (An unexpected firefight that closes out the first act, for example, is all the more surprising for the close proximity of the two shooters), but by the time The Purge returns to its political underpinnings with a twisted reversal of fortune, the movie has ventured too far from its roots for the return to make an impact.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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