The era of ultra-violence is upon us: stories about baddies dying terrific deaths, or heroes leaping from cars to defy the rules of gravity, are celebrated and marketed by Hollywood as part of The Summer Movie Season. A society bent on enjoying such entertainment over more meaningful (and potentially just as thrilling) stories seems to be all Hollywood can produce now, such as the well-intentioned but poorly-executed thriller The Purge. It's the kind of film that could have been so much more but achieves far less.
It's the year 2022, and crime/general suffering is at an astonishing 1% No, we haven't founded The United Federation of Planets, or come up with a new food and money supply to bring the world happiness. What society has achieved is far more morbid: during one 12-hour period each year, Americans are allowed to engage in The Purge, a ritualistic evening of murder and crime that's not only allowed but encouraged. Hate your boss? Kill him without repercussion. Discovered a jealous wife? Whack her without consequence. It's in this environment that we find the Sandins: the father James (Ethan Hawke, Gattaca), wife Mary (Lena Heady, Dredd), and kids Charlie (Max Burkholder) and Zoey (Adelaine Kane). After The Purge begins, the sympathetic Charlie rolls up dad's security doors to give shelter to an injured homeless man. In doing so, he unknowingly attracts a group of people bent on killing him and the Sandins. As the lynch mob digs in for a home invasion, James and Mary must decide if the stranger is worth sacrificing their lives to protect him.
Directed and written by newcomer James DeMonaco, The Purge sports a terrific premise, that of a mass one-night killing spree to keep social order throughout the year. The trouble is that DeMonaco's genius ends there, confined to a few chilling scenes of citizens oddly supporting the event, while engaging in a terrible act of film-making sin. While he leads the audience down this troubled road with effective scenes of ultra-violence and talk-show rationalizations, DeMonaco loses any capital he builds when makes Charlie the worst scapegoat possible. Already too long in the tooth over the debate, The Purge sinks under its own weight, brought down by the actions of one stupid kid. As a result, we don't feel Charlie's humanity, but instead curse him throughout the film for his actions that remind us of a one-man wrecking crew. By the time we're done, the boy has ruined his parent's home, killed his father, and forced Mary to pick up the pieces. There's a ridiculous and unnecessary relationship angle between Zoey and a would-be boyfriend, along with an ending that we're not invested in by the time it materializes. Heady and Hawke have good chemistry, but the leader of the lynch mob (Rhys Wakefield) is only superficially bad, adding more weight to a story that feels a lot longer than 85 minutes. Yes, The Purge is only 85 minutes, which means it took me as long to drive to this film as to watch it.
The problem with The Purge is not that we don't believe such atrocities could happen; but in its effort to convince us, the story gets lost in too much set up and not enough pay off. The actions by Charlie don't endear us to him, representing a foolish and costly mistake by DeMonaco. By the time America's new bloodsport sport is concluded, we've come up with far better scenarios than the one just witnessed. It's too bad that its execution is so horribly flawed, because its base premise is so appealing. As I emerged from the theater to a din of disdain, I was at least comforted that I wasn't alone in my opinion. When you can create a better premise in your head while watching Hollywood's supposed best effort, you know you've just witnessed a dud. The Purge is rated R for violence and has a runtime of 85 minutes.
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