Movie Review: The Purge
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Blumhouse Productions has had great financial success making horror movies for little money that recoup their small budgets in the first weekend. See: the “Paranormal Activity” franchise and the 2012 surprise hit “Sinister.”
You can almost imagine the conversation that ignited the idea for “The Purge,” the new horror from writer-director James DeMonaco. The home-invasion genre has been trotted out countless times over the years, so DeMonaco and Blumhouse put a spin on the familiar narrative device. Instead of just having people trapped in a home doing their best to evade killers, they decided to add a social commentary angle.
The year is 2022. The crime rate has diminished to 1 percent, and things seem fairly idyllic in America. The reason for peace? An annual 12-hour period called the purge that allows citizens to release their inherently aggressive tendencies in a torrent of violent acts that go unpunished. The result has been the elimination of many of the poor and the increased prosperity of the bourgeoisie. Purge details such as crimes being limited to “category 4 weapons” and certain government officials being off-limits give a muddied nuance to the events that occur between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.
We discover the ground rules of the purge in a montage of grizzly images on television and over the car radio of James Sandin (Ethan Hawke), a wildly successful home security salesman headed home to barricade his family in their McCastle in a sterile neighborhood populated by creepy suburban stereotypes.
James and his wife, Mary, (Lena Headey, best known as Cersei Lannister in “Game of Thrones”) don’t need to worry much about their safety or that of their children, Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaide Kane). Thanks to James’ work in security, the Sandins have a protective shield that is seemingly impenetrable. When the clock strikes seven, metal sheets cover the windows and doors.
Inside the house, the Sandins experience domestic issues typical of families with teenage kids: Zoey resents her overbearing father for keeping her from her older boyfriend, and nerdy little brother Charlie likes to tinker with robots and seclude himself in a secret hiding spot. Both the secret hiding spot and the robot will come into play as the drama unfolds, hinted at with classic horror-movie foreshadowing by DeMonaco.
As the purge unfolds on TV, Charlie monitors the neighborhood via his dad’s multiple security cameras. When he sees a man running down their street pleading for help, Charlie disarms the system, allowing the scared man (Edwin Hodge) into their house.
The Sandins fear for their lives, and just as one act of sudden violence plays out inside the house, another threat appears outside. A group of preppy 20-somethings led by a demented blonde (Rhys Wakefield) who looks vaguely Austrian, calling to mind Michael Haneke’s home-invasion film “Funny Games,” appear at the Sandins demanding the release of the homeless African-American man.
Outfitted in a plaid tie and emblazoned jacket, the leader of the group tells the Sandins that the man they are hiding is “filthy swine” and that it is their given right to be allowed to kill him and purge themselves.
The discussion hints at the increasingly idiotic dystopian device the film uses as its initial point of entry, but the satirical social observations about class warfare and the elimination of poverty by killing the poor are really just an excuse to get the motley crew of sociopaths into the house.
Once inside, because you know they were gonna get inside, the Sandins must face the reality of the purge they’ve long endorsed and make a moral decision about the rules imposed on them in this futuristic America. The violence in the house plays out in some shocking turns, with decent choreography, but the ridiculous premise makes the whole bloody endeavor feel gratuitous. The most disturbing part of the film when I viewed it wasn’t the violence on screen, but the gleeful way many members of the audience reacted to the killings, leaving me to wonder if this vision of 2022 isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem.
When the bodies settle and the sun rises, “The Purge” tries to shoehorn some comedy into the screenplay in the final five minutes, as if the filmmakers had all along been selling this trite horror as a satire. In the end, it works as neither.