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"The Purge" is a Deeply Flawed Vision of an American Nightmare Review

The Purge flaunts the kind of smashing concept that would make Roger Corman salivate. In 2020 (not too far off now!), America has been revived after a post-quadruple-depression and a market crash. The New Founding Fathers have instituted a single day out of 365 devoted to releasing the rabid hate that grows inside each and every one of us. Citizens kill, maim, cower, run, or hunker down and wait out the night. Many purge. It is their right, their privilege, and despite some outcry that The Purge overwhelmingly targets the lower economic classes, unemployment is at 1% and America flourishes as a nation under...what, exactly? James DeMonaco’s (the writer/director also penned the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) film desperately wants to say something, but behind the hollow intellectual facade is a film that violates your suspension of disbelief and fizzles out early on.

The set-up is thus: patriarch James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) prepares to lock down for the 12-hour Purge period. Sandin does well for himself hustling security systems that let the neighbors in his wealthy, gated, and primarily white community ride out the slaughter. As the family goes through the motions prior to the countdown, we are introduced to wife Mary (Lena Hedley), morally conflicted son Charlie (Max Burkholder) and fuming daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), barely speaking with her father over his forbidding that she date the older Henry (Tony Oller). Henry doesn’t take well to the prohibition, sneaking into the house minutes from the institution of the Purge in hopes of reasoning with James his way. 

Everything seems to be going according to protocol - then a bloodied black man (Edwin Hodge) stumbles onto their street, Charlie breaks down and unlocks the security system to let him in and preppy WASPy folks wielding machetes, assault rifles, shotguns and masks show up at the Sandin’s door. Their nameless leader (a solid Rhys Wakefield, whose performance would warrant more praise if it wasn’t so inundated with mannerisms that made Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker so unforgettable) demands the Sandins release “the pig” so that he and his psychopath friends may purge. Their home under siege, James and Mary deploy to search the house in hopes of saving themselves.

The narrative remains simple although DeMonaco harbors intentions of subversion, and it’s easy to see what The Purge could have been, a labyrinthine home invasion thriller full of shifting alliances that used an increasingly desperate cast of characters to discuss relatable, compelling issues. It is however, a sci-fi film as well, although after setting up the titular event, the film is left with a lot of unanswered questions and worse yet, chooses not to build on the concept. The best sci-fi films hold an often necessary mirror to modern-man, allowing us to ponder our visage under extreme circumstances. An America where one day out of the year is a slaughter fest? It grabs you certainly, though it’s not terribly believable. That said, the viewer would be along for the ride if only the people fighting for their lives deserved a shred of emotional attachment. No disrespect to the actors, who work with what they have, but no one outside of the soft-spoken leader of the masked, ghoulish killers makes much of an impression.

As the film sinks downward into well-worn cliches and a third act that arguably nullifies some of the finger-wagging sincerity gathered early on, we are helpless to watch it barrel down to a climax featuring a minor twist that would be significantly more affecting if it didn’t come after a build-up to damn near celebratory blood-letting. The concept, again, is interesting, if only because the world it sets up in a few brief strokes can be expanded and new inroads can be found for future films in the series to probe our less proud tendencies. Unfortunately, The Purge finds itself in a conundrum: if the film is successful, expect a hare-brained sequel, and if it is not, the possibility is laid to rest here only to be revived a decade or two down the road, likely as an equally trashy B-level flick with some thinly sketched philosophical aspirations.

"The Purge" opens June 7, 2013 and is rated R. Drama, Thriller. Written and directed by James DeMonaco. Starring Adelaide Kane, Edwin Hodge, Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, Max Burkholder, Rhys Wakefield.

Jun
07
2013
Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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