Movie Review: ‘The Purge’
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Lena Heady, and Max Burkholder
Plot: During an annual 12 hour period where there are no laws, a family is threatened by killers outside.
This movie takes place in a near future (or alternative present) where America now has an annual 12 hour period where all crimes are legal. The stats conclude that crime rates are down during the rest of the year, but other people think it is just a time for the fortunate to prey on the weak and unfortunate. Duh! Of course that is what happens without laws, and this world is not just without laws. There is actual encouragement to go out and commit crimes. And not just crimes, but murder. No one is saying rob a bank, vandalize a landmark, or park in a handicap zone. They are literally saying “go kill someone and get it out of your system.”
The whole concept is already on rickety ground. They do very little to suspend your disbelief that this kind of change could ever really happen, and if it did, that there would really be as many proponents as the movie boasts. I suppose there could be some kind of political or social commentary to it, but they don’t really try too hard to develop them. You keep expecting them to expose, wax poetic, or philosophize even slightly on the problem at hand, but those moments end up being overly broad. I guess that’s because the only scene where it is actively and honestly discussed is when the father has to justify it to his young son. What’s left is the message, “it sucks to be a victim,” which is essential for the genre to work already.
The concept is more like a way for a traditional suburban 21st century family to end up isolated during a period when they need help the most. Instead of writing around cell phone service and internet connections, they get rid of the people who should be answering those calls for help. There is some inherent brilliance to that notion, and the movie may have fared better if this concept worked more as foundation than an overarching theme. Unfortunately, since it is constantly being referred to, everything is kind of sullied by it. It definitely seems like scenes ended up on the cutting room floor leading to more intellectually satisfying conclusions.
It isn’t all bad though. The adults of this family are played by some very talented actors, Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady, and they do a really good job. Any kind of tension the movie has is because of the fear, desperation, and sadness on their faces. It certainly doesn’t come from the family aimlessly roaming the halls of their dark house or the MacGuffin intruder who just hides in a closet for a better part of a movie or the cartoonish villains outside who are so cartoonish that they should be twirling their mustaches and tying damsels to train tracks.
The most surprising part is it has a really strong ending. I find home invasion horror flicks to always have a crappy ending. The Strangers. Kidnapped. Even the much-beloved Funny Games. I actually really like this ending, and it almost made me second guess how well they were using the concept. Almost.
The Purge takes a concept rife with potential and half-asses itself into a basic home intruder movie. They try to rise above with some key casting decisions, but the damage is already done. With a surprisingly strong first weekend box office, they clinched a sequel. Hopefully, they can dig a little deeper into the socio-political motivations and consequences.
What Else to Watch: David Fincher’s Panic Room: a home invasion movie where the security system is an active part of the narrative, and not just one of many obstacles.