Friday, June 7, 2013

The Purge

THE PURGE: Ethan Hawke, Lena Headey, directed by James DeMonaco (85 min.)

In the not-so-distant future, crime is at an all time low across America, unemployment is less than 1%, and the economy is stable and thriving. This is because one night every year, from 7 pm to 7 am, all crime has been made legal, from petty thievery all the way up to murder. This night is called “the purge,” mandated by government law as a means of release for citizens. An emergency broadcast alert even scrolls across the screen once the night of the purge begins. This is the basic premise of The Purge, the new film starring Ethan Hawke, a film which begins with a grand idea loaded with implications and discussion points, and decides to abandon all of this in favor of a home invasion thriller.

Hawke plays James Sandin, successful businessman, husband and father of a daughter and son. James and his family live in a Utopia of mansions and sunshine, a place where the purge never reaches their doors. You see, James has made a fortune selling security systems to everyone in the affluent neighborhood so the fear is kept at arm’s length and left to the poor and urban neighborhoods where most of the purging takes place. He is aloof and blissfully ignorant of the outside world like all of his neighbors. “We will be fine,” James assures his family as the purge begins. “Like we always are.”

I had so many questions as soon as the film began, and so many different ideas are thrown at the screen through news snippets and dialogue. The Purge does something interesting with its basic idea in that it shows how the poor are weeded out of society by this night of murder, creating now lower class. No wonder unemployment is under 1%, all the unemployed are being killed every year. The notion that this night releases aggression in the human brain, easing our tension and making us less prone to violence, is another interesting theory delivered through a nameless philosopher on a news broadcast. It is never explored fully. But then there is the angle that the purge showcases the worst in humanity, and is nothing more than an outlet for the psychopaths to do what they want. Alas, we are not here for some important sociological experiment; instead we are whisked along quickly to the night of the purge where a standard action thriller can unfold.

The purge begins and the security systems lock into place. All seems well until James’ sensitive son, Charlie – the one who questions this whole purge idea from the beginning – sees a man fleeing in the streets asking anyone to please hide him. Charlie opens the security doors just long enough to let the man slide under and away from his pursuers. But it isn’t long before those very pursuers find out where this man is hiding and knock on the door. These people are clearly psychotics, using creepy, smiling, human-like masks (you know the ones, they are becoming cliché) for what reason I do not know. If the purge is completely legal, why the disguise? Nevertheless, the leader of the masked murderers threatens James and his family and says they will come in and find the man eventually and of course they break through the shoddy security system James knew was shoddy in the first place and the cat-and-mouse game is underway.

If that last sentence feels rushed, then it fits the pacing of the film. Every bit of sociological examination is an afterthought in The Purge. The idea from writer and director James DeMonaco is fresh and inventive, especially in this endless summer collection of sequels and superheroes, so why trim away all of the deeper meaning so we can get to a standard horror film? We are pushed into the action before we even get a chance to know this family beyond standard hang-ups, so when the invaders get in the suspense never materializes. It’s just a big shrug.

The Purge could have been something quite profound in the end, if only the filmmakers had taken their time. It is under ninety minutes and it could have easily been over two hours. How about showing James at work on these security systems, overlooking a flaw? Or what about these kids at school and the other teenagers thoughts on such an event? The man who hides in their home, do we get to know him? Not really. And the psychos at the door are yanked right out of The Strangers or some other home invasion potboiler. Even when they take off their masks, they’re about as faceless as they were beforehand. Nothing is fleshed out as it should be, chalking up The Purge as just one big missed opportunity.