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Entries in Purge/The [2013] (1)

Wednesday
Jun122013

The Purge (2013)

Programmed Entitlement

The Purge is as much a triumph of iconography and marketing as quality filmmaking--perhaps more so. That's not a dig on writer/director James DeMonaco's pseudo-political home-invasion thriller; the film stands on its own as a heady, unnerving entertainment. But I'm sure that what got asses in seats last weekend, turning a $3 million movie into a $36 million phenomenon, were the advertisements featuring those creepy, Ken-and-Barbie-inspired Jimmy Carter masks.

The masks are unimportant to the story, just as they were in The Strangers and, I'll bet, the forthcoming You're Next. Sure, they're meant to conceal the identities of whichever group of killers is going after unsuspecting family A, B, or C--but what function do they serve, really? These are insane, vicious serial murderers, so I doubt identification by the cops is of chief concern (this is especially true of the lead villain here; more on that in a minute). Nor are the masks any more effective at intimidating the would-be victims than the assailants' weapons or aggressive violation of personal space.

No, the masks are for our benefit. More important than creeping us out, they make us curious enough to buy tickets to a movie we might otherwise write off as a generic, jump-scare thriller. Contrary to what you may have gleaned from the trailers or read in the press about the story's ultimately unfulfilled potential (not my words), The Purge is a very smart, very involving fable that uses the language of horror to address real-world issues.

In DeMonaco's universe, the United States plunges into a "quadruple-dip recession" that leads to an unprecedented explosion of crime and unemployment. Desperate to save ourselves from societal collapse, we elect a newly formed hyper-conservative political party called The New Founding Fathers. Their first order of business: an annual bloodbath known as "The Purge". For twelve hours, nearly all crime is legal,* and all emergency/law-enforcement services are suspended.

Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a wealthy sales executive for a home-security company. He rushes home on Purge night, excited to tell his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), about the huge bonus he was just awarded. As it turns out, living in a gated community with fabulously wealthy and ultra-paranoid neighbors is great for business. At dinner, he struggles to engage his snotty teenage daughter, Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and his awkward, tech-obsessed son, Charlie (Max Burkholder). This is apparently nothing new for the Sandins, and James marches cheerfully ahead with the group lock-down ritual (activating steel shutters and doors, checking ammo in their small arsenal, etc.).

Of course, nothing goes to plan. A few hours into The Purge, Charlie sees a wounded man stumbling down his quiet street, screaming for help. He rushes for the security panel and opens the front door. Once inside, all hell breaks loose--and this is before the masked gang shows up. I've gotta tiptoe around the initial moments of this nightmarish evening so as not to spoil some nifty surprises; suffice it to say, the family is split up in their massive home with a stranger on the loose and lots of blood already spilled.

Soon, a boy named Henry (Rhys Wakefield) comes calling. He and his gang of masked, heavily armed prep school friends land on the Sandins' porch, demanding that they turn over the man seeking asylum in their home (Edwin Hodge's character is billed as "Target/Hostage", but Henry repeatedly addresses him as "swine"). The Sandins have unknowingly sheltered the rich kids' Purge toy, whom they want to rip to shreds before the sun comes up. If the family doesn't comply soon, Henry promises, his thugs will storm the house and kill everyone inside as punishment.

How might they accomplish that, if the house is, indeed, a fortress? That and many other very interesting questions pop up during The Purge. DeMonaco has a lot on his mind, but he only meets the audience half way--which is refreshing in a commercial thriller. We get a lot of up-front information about the Sandins, and very little about their accidental houseguest and the people chasing him. But the film's richness comes across in the visual cues and mental wormholes that the premise and characters' behavior will take audiences down if they're paying attention.

For example, some commentators in this universe's media argue that The Purge is a government-sanctioned war against the poor and middle-class, who don't have the resources to defend themselves against homicidal mobs. Others contend that the event is a national catharsis, a chance for us to expel our collective rage and live the rest of the year as level-headed, stress-free reapers of our own success. When Charlie asks his dad why he and mom don't participate in The Purge, James says that they don't have any rage to get rid of. That idea is heavily tested during the next several hours, with a lot of gray entering into this seemingly black-and-white world.

Even if you tune out DeMonaco's big ideas, The Purge still works as a suspenseful, well-acted thriller. The cast is superb, especially Hawke, who's enjoyed quite the second career as a genre actor in such surprisingly great indies like Daybreakers and Sinister. Here, he plays the kind of guy that most of his anti-establishment characters from the 90s would have written bad poetry about: an out-of-touch, conservative businessman who doesn't know he's a jerk and a buffoon.

Wakefield is the breakout here, playing a spoiled, calculating son of privilege who's obviously watched Heath Ledger's Joker scenes from The Dark Knight one too many times. He's charismatic and scary, and exits the picture in way too unceremonious a fashion, in my opinion. But while he's on screen, there's nothing else in the world I would have rather been watching. The same goes for Hodge, who, by saying very little in the film, acts as the audience's conscience and as an incredulous spectator to the class warfare errupting around him.

The Purge's true hero, though, is its screenplay. I can't wait to see this movie again, so I can dial down my critic brain and enjoy DeMonaco's convention-tweaking playfulness, free of skepticism. If you're like me, you've seen dozens of home-invasion movies; because they often fall into the same traps, we only remember the actors and maybe a cool death scene or two. Here, almost every choice the characters make is an opportunity to go in one of several neat directions. For example, just when I thought I'd grown tired of the old "hero swoops in to shoot an attacker who's got someone pinned to the floor" routine (and there are more than two instances in this movie), DeMonaco switches things up a bit, delivering a climactic scene that's shocking in its civility and more satisfying than a bad-guy bullet-to-the-head.

It's unclear from watching The Purge what DeMonaco's politics are, or if he even has any. Some might look at this movie as an indictment of the one percent; others might see it as a case for more extreme action against so-called "undesirable" elements. Our deteriorating public discourse suggests that the middle ground has all but eroded, and mankind certainly doesn't look pretty by the end of this picture. The good news, according to the writer/director, is that reason and decency stand more than a fighting chance, no matter how well masked they are by greed, paranoia, and our never-ending quest for the illusion of security.

*The advertising smartly teases us with an "All Crime is Legal" tagline. DeMonaco knows such a scenario would be impossible to enforce, and sneaks in a few caveats during The Purge's Emergency Broadcast System message: government officials above a certain level are exempt, and some grades of weaponry are restricted. Essentially, all crime is legal below a particular pay grade.