6 June 2013


The Purge could almost be a study of suggestibility. When a message appears on television telling America that all crimes, INCLUDING MURDER, are legal for the next 12 hours, murder seems to be the only major crime that anybody goes out and commits. The trouble is that the film isn't that kind of study- it just hasn't been entirely well-thought out.

In the year 2022, there has been a major upheaval in the United States, with its "New Founding Fathers" having instituted an annual Purge for the darker impulses of its people. Once a year, for 12 hours, all emergency services and law enforcement is suspended, leading to relative prosperity for the rest of the year. James Sandin sells security systems to those who can afford to protect themselves during the Purge, but finds his own house under attack when his young son shows an act of kindness towards a homeless man.

The film's central thesis is that the most ostensibly sane and amiable people around will annually go nuts and commit murders in this dystopic scenario, especially with the added entitlement of being rich. In any case, the film portrays the Purge as an excuse for the haves to prey upon the have-nots. Writer-director James DeMonaco seems quite content to posit a world in which the rich annually indulge in active social cleansing, even if it's all rhetorical- characters accept and support the Purge for the sake of the greater good, but are they really cool with rapists and child molesters being legally untouchable for 12 hours of each year?

Crimes like rape and child abuse aren't as splattery as murder though, so they largely go unmentioned. Granted, the film isn't presenting the Purge as a good idea, by any stretch of the imagination, but it does leave some of the characters feeling a little thin as a result. The Sandins' bread-winner, James, has made a fortune by selling impenetrable security systems that turn out to be decidedly penetrable, to those who can afford to protect themselves, and so his arc is obviously redemptive. But watching certain characters only just realising what we all know from the beginning, that this is a bad idea, this world just doesn't feel lived in.

As for the other members of his family, autistic Charlie is weirdly fascinated by the idea of the Purge, but he's the one who takes pity on a potential victim and brings hell down upon his family as a result, and teenaged Zoey, who's already rebelling against her father's disapproval of her older boyfriend, is faintly disgusted by the whole thing. The first establishing shot of Zoey's room finds awards for speaking and debate that never convert into a voice of reason- that voice is apparently put to better use screaming for help, but then we are in horror movie territory. Likewise, as doting mother Mary, Lena Headey is more given to flip-flopping between what every other character is doing- she's not much of a character at all.

After some early foreshadowing that doesn't come back until later in the film, the outside threat comes from a gang of Droog-like Clockwork Orange wannabes in masks- just a bunch of Ivy League kids, led by a memorably sinister Rhys Wakefield. Well, it would be more of a threat if James didn't have a massive armoury of guns, "just in case", which tends to level the playing field. A more fun movie might have had the Sandins improvising in the face of much greater firepower, but in the midst of this movie's mixed-up politics, the gun is still portrayed as an indispensable tool in defending the American home.

The Purge is a politically muddled film with a few big ideas- in a refreshingly un-sci-fi dystopia, it most commonly reverts back to home invasion formula, with sprinklings of horror movie tropes to ramp up the intensity. Ethan Hawke leads a solid cast of thinly-drawn characters, and elevates it above the weaker splatter-exploitation movie that it could have been. It moves quickly to avoid falling apart, and at least maintains the bare minimum required from a fast-paced thriller. However, it's not up to the level of a Romero-esque social satire, partly because it's all too easy to disengage and realise that this is unfrighteningly unreal.

The Purge is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Purge, why not share your comments below? If we get the inevitable sequel, here's hoping it goes out into the world and explores how-- oh, it's produced by Michael Bay. Never mind.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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