Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Purge Doesn't Quite Live Up To Its Cool Concept

     Picture a future that looks a lot like ours on the surface. There's still a gargantuan gap between the richest people in the neighborhood and the poor and down-trodden, but unemployment is at an all time low of around 1%. Crime still occurs, yet hardly ever: there is no need for a concealed weapons permit or to even to lock your car door after you slam it. All is well in America--better than ever, it seems--due to one 12-hour period that happens annually: The Purge. This purge allows all crime (including murder, though the film never goes into the specifics of more disgusting crimes, like child molestation) to be legal during those 12 hours. You can drive around, shooting all of your fellow employees, or you can take a machete to your neighbor's yelping dog. Think of it as a cleansing time for anyone with sociopathic tendencies. During this time, all police and emergency services are suspended: 7 P.M. to 7 A.M. This is the interesting set up for The Purge, a thriller that starts off really strong but slowly (or quickly, considering the film is only 85 minutes) falls into a predictability that purges much of the movie's excitement.
     James (Ethan Hawke) is a family man who loves the annual purge more for the dollar signs than for the cleansing of the soul: he's a home security salesman, and in this story (obviously), making your home a fortress of the latest protection technology is of utmost importance. He's one of the leading salesman for his company, and he has one of the biggest houses in his upscale suburban neighborhood, most of which is equipped with his expertise. Things begin briskly--with hours and then minutes before the annual purge begins--as we meet James's family: his wife, Mary (Lena Headey, of Cersei Lannister fame) holds a nervous tension about the yearly event. His 18-year-old daughter, Zoey, is the typical rebellious type--wearing a short skirt and making out with her older boyfriend, she'd rather spend The Purge texting emoticons than watching the violent news coverage. Most importantly, we have younger Charlie, who questions the need for The Purge and also has a cool camera-equipped Roomba-esque remote control robot that roams the house, spying on anything interesting.
     As the clock strikes 7 P.M., James enters the code, the house goes into lock-down mode--complete with metal gates that slam shut over every door and window--and the security cameras pop up on the many screens on the one wall of his McMansion. And when those gates slam shut, it also shuts out the possibility of the film taking a wider view of the futuristic concept that was so intriguing. No need to spoil the specifics, but the rest of the run time involves a hurt man begging to be let in, a group of characters that doesn't bring much new to the home invasion sub-genre of horror films, and a few predictable twists that are not un-enjoyable but also aren't surprising in the least.
     Ethan Hawke is always pretty good in these types of roles: a man with a brimming intensity that sometimes can show to the surface with his excitement. The other cast does their part with nothing special or overly praise-worthy. The characters that pose a threat to the family are creepy, but a little over-the-top: they're like a cross between the preppy tennis-outfit-wearing teens of Funny Games (I couldn't help but think how Ryan Gosling would have been perfect bringing his intensity to the intruder role) and the violent invaders of The Strangers. And speaking of those two films, The Purge succumbs to the genre conventions in its final act and has trouble separating itself away those similar movies. And nearly everyone falls into the horror film trap of making completely idiotic decisions: Don't open that door! Don't make so much noise when you're trying to be quiet! Finish people off when you stab them!
     The film was written and directed by James DeMonaco, who guided Hawke in 2005's Assault on Precinct 13. He definitely has a knack for setting up intense scenes where the tension is completely palpable. One of the more creative aspects of the film is Charlie's remote control robot that crawls from room to room, and it's not giving anything away to state that it plays an interesting role--especially with the unique camera angles. A couple of the action scenes are very well staged, too: specifically when Hawke has to creatively take out two intruders in his billiard room. Instead of relying on shaky cam (like so many other action thrillers), the violence is clean and concise.
      There's no doubt that DeMonaco put in an admirable effort. There is a major problem though: his script gives us so many things to think about--the fact that The Purge may be the Government's way of ridding the country of the homeless and less fortunate, the notion that different races are more targeted, the fact that top-level government officials are safe from the violence--that when the film turns into a typical home invasion thriller, it's hard not to feel let down by its semi-wasted potential. The Purge could have been an epic sci-fi film with big ideas that was smart and exciting. Instead, it's just a decent action thriller about the steps you take to protect your family and your home.     (B-)

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