A film review by Craig J. Koban June 11, 2013


2013, R, 86 mins


Ethan Hawke as James  /  Lena Headey as Mary  /  Max Burkholder as Charlie  /  Rhys Wakefield as Polite Stranger  /  Edwin Hodge as Bloody Stranger

Written and directed by James Demonaco

THE PURGE is one of those horror-thrillers that has a continuously fascinating and thought-provoking premise that regrettably never really capitalizes on its novelty.  Part not-too-distant futuristic tale, part social/political allegory, part home-invasion action flick, and part economic commentary on the war between the haves and the have nots, THE PURGE does have some legitimately profound things that it wants to say, but it wallows around so much in B-grade, sensationalistic, and schlocky extremes that the longer it progresses the less interested it is in its ideas and themes.  It’s sort of like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE meets ASSAULT ON PRESCIENT 13, but lacking the former’s satiric wit and the latter’s well oiled mayhem. 

Alas, THE PURGE’s premise is still pretty damn compelling, as long as you don’t begin to meticulously rip holes into it.  The film is set in 2022, during which time the United States has become a nation reborn under a new breed of “Founding Founders.”  Unemployment rates are at all-time lows and crime is virtually non-existent in one form or another.  Everything seems ideal in this near-Utopian America.  Yet, the new rulers of the country – realizing that they would need to do something to help quench that always lingering need for humans to do harm to one another – instituted an annual 12-hour program called “The Purge”, a period of time when all criminal activity – no matter how ghastly – becomes legal (murder, theft, etc.).  There’s only a couple of rules: (1) High-ranking governmental officials are untouchable (convenient) and (2) only certain types of weapons are allowed.  The government’s ideology with the Purge is simple: it gives all of its citizens a chance to vent all of their negative and hostile emotions so that they will not act on them before or afterwards.

This, of course, raises some obvious questions regarding safety.  Homeless and the poor are easy targets during the yearly Purge, whereas the affluent can guard themselves within their gated and guarded homes that are sealed up with high tech security devices that turns their entire dwelling into one big panic room.  This is where James Sandin  (Ethan Hawke) comes in, a filthy rich suburban man that sells those very systems that keep other rich families’ houses safe and secure during the Purge.  He lives a life of relative luxury with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and his two kids, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide).  Everyone on James’ block uses the very security systems that he has made a killing on, which makes him both a savior and perhaps a target of scorn by his outwardly friendly neighbors. 



The Purge night comes and James sets his system to seal his home and family away from all of the hellish hostilities that will occur on the outside.  A serious problem arises, however, when Charlie sees a bleeding homeless man (Edwin Hodge) pleading for his life outside of their home via surveillance cameras.  He lets the suffering man into their home, which infuriates his father.  Later, a bunch of masked Purge-happy hooligans arrive at James' home, led by - as referred to in the credits - "Polite Stranger" Aryan (Rhys Wakefield, looking kind of like a rather young Christian Bale from AMERICAN PSYCHO).  The Stranger gives James an ultimatum: turn over his once-intended prey in the man that James is now harboring or he and his henchmen will forcibly enter the home…and kill everyone inside.  In a pure STRAW DOGS-esque fashion, James decides to nut up and shut up, arm himself and his family, and defend the homeless man and his wife and kids via any gruesome means necessary. 

As for the good, director James DeMonaco (who previously wrote the remake to ASSAULT ON PRESCIENT 13, also starring Hawke) manages to generate some tangibly decent “BOO!” moments by finely crafting suspense built upon careful usage of silence.  He also shows a sure hand when it comes to harnessing thanklessly lived-in and natural performances, especially by Hawke and Headey, both of whom are always credible as a couple willing to protect their kids at all costs.  Hawke in particular makes his character’s transition from an upper class sniveling snob to a one-man, shotgun justice giving army pretty seamlessly.  Headey manages to be an outwardly beautiful actress that always manages to evoke a raw, carnal, and internalized strength with roles such as the one on display here.  Rhys Wakefield – sporting a fraternity blazer, well oiled hair, and a conveying smile that screams youthful sadist – is reliably creepy throughout. 

Alas, what really drags THE PURGE down – despite all of its good traits – is that it never really capitalizes on being the kind of profound and richly ideas-centric sci-fi thriller that I think it really aspires to be.  Once you get past the inspired premise of the Purge, the film sort of loses interest in seriously exploring it and sinks into a fairly routine, one-note and blood-soaked home invasion action film.  There is just so much rich potential for the underlining material here that it makes it all the more disheartening to see the makers cast away it away in scene after scene of machete swinging, guns blazing, and mano-a-mano fisticuffs.  The film digresses towards cat and mouse games of one-upmanship and hide and seek, which is done with a reasonable amount of flare and polish, but I think that it does so to avoid having to expand upon the whole complex world that the Purge is built around.  Even worse, the final act of the film careens towards a conclusion that’s about as anti-climatic as they come.  

Some of the details on the very nature of this futuristic society also seem kind of sketchily developed.  How do all of the animalistic imperatives to do harm to others only occur between the Purge’s very limited, once-a-year period?  Do rapists and pedophiles just resist the urge to offend for 99 per cent of the rest of the year?  Furthermore, if ordinary people were able to act upon their nightmarish yearnings annually, would this not have long-standing psychological consequences for society as a whole?  How did the Purge actually get voted into law when simple things like Medicare are so hotly debated for what seems like an eternity?  Lastly, if the homeless and the poor are the easiest targets, why wouldn’t they all rise together and attempt to overthrow the rich masses?  THE PURGE simply leaves too many of these – and many more – queries unanswered.  

I guess that the simple answer to this is that the makers just opted for pretty standard and conventional action sequences, which they hoped would help cover up any narrative inconsistencies, not to mention their inability to provide sobering insight into the themes of suppressing and then letting out violent impulses.  There is some truly scathing ideas that the film plays around with in terms of portraying a society that thinks it's perfectly balanced and stable when, in reality, it's ape-ship crazy and unhinged.  There is an uber intelligent satire buried deep beneath THE PURGE’s veneer of a fairly clichéd and run-of-the-mill action-thriller; it just needs to be, shall we say, released by a finer script that’s not so distracted by rudimentary thrills and repetitive gore.  

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