Review: 'The Purge' Starring Ethan Hawke & Lena Headey

Reviews
by Drew Taylor
June 4, 2013 10:57 AM
14 Comments
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Rarely do horror films these days luxuriate in big ideas. Instead, they are usually a simple formula, based on a rudimentary conceptual framework (cameras capture supernatural activity, madman devises ingenious torture traps), stretched painfully thin over 90 minutes or so. One of the things that makes "The Purge," a new high-concept horror movie about a utopian society with a very dark secret, so refreshing, is that it actually takes the time to engage in some truly provocative and subversive ideas, and what's more -- these thematic interests never come at the expense of the thrills. "The Purge" manages to be smart, scary, and subversive. In the current horror landscape, this is much rarer than a demonic possession or capturing a ghost on videotape.

The set-up for "The Purge" is ingeniously simplistic: sometime in the not-too-distant future, a utopian society has emerged. People get along, in peace and quiet, with low poverty rates and no crime, because for one cathartic twelve-hour period – known as The Purge – all matter of lawlessness is allowed. Emergency medical services are suspended and whatever you can get away with, including rape, murder, and eating grapes from the produce section of the supermarket without paying for them, is A-OK. It's a perverse concept and just the idea behind The Purge carries a kicky kind of jolt.

Ethan Hawke plays James Sandin, a man who sells and installs home security systems. He lives in an upper-crust suburban neighborhood with his wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children, Zoe (Adelaide Kane) and Charlie (Max Burkholder). The neighbors carry a certain degree of restrained animosity towards the family, since they seem to be flourishing while tougher economic hardships have befallen themselves. (If, for one night of the year, your house has to be transformed into a fortress, then it probably makes for a pretty good living.) The Sandins are preparing for a safe night in, while The Purge rages outside their gated doors.

Of course, things don't go quite as planned, and when a stranger (Edwin Hodge) shows up at their doorstep, Charlie, feeling sympathy, disables the security system long enough for the stranger to slip inside. That in and of itself is something of a problem, but the larger issue is that a group of preppy maniacs, wearing masks that are caricatures of their own expertly chiseled faces, show up looking for the stranger. The leader of the group is played by Rhys Wakefield, looking like he just downloaded the new Vampire Weekend album and speaking with a well-mannered chilliness. He demands that the Sandins release the man or they will get inside the house and kill everyone left standing, including the children. Eep.

"The Purge" is a bottled horror movie, taking place exclusively in the house, which adds an unnerving level of tension to set pieces that would have lost their momentum had they taken place in a larger environment. Writer/director James DeMonaco, who wrote the underrated "Assault on Precinct 13" remake (that also starred Hawke in tough-guy survivalist mode), manages to pose thorny moral questions and is willing to make our supposed heroes incredibly unlikable, all in the service of the movie's thematic underpinnings. It's a bold move, and a brilliant one, since a more "straight" version of this story could have been made with more commercial appeal and it would have been much less interesting.

Still, DeMonaco delivers where it counts and there are a number of great flourishes (including a John Carpenter-esque moment where Hawke watches the villains as they surround the house) and surprises that pop up throughout the movie's swift 85-minute running time. There isn't a wasted moment in the entire movie, which is also a nice change of pace considering how bloated and overlong most Hollywood product is these days, and Hawke manages to anchor the movie in a viably emotional way, even when he behaves very badly.

If there's one casualty of the running time, though, it's characterization. Both the man that the family takes in and the wolves at the door aren't given any kind of texture or nuance. They just show up, talk a little bit, and hide (or kill). Maybe this was done to emphasize the randomness of The Purge, how it is the great leveler, even if the society claims to be more even. Within this "utopia," there are still clearly haves and have-nots, and on this night, every member of the social strata is forced onto a similar playing field. But, while it may enrich the movie on a metaphoric level, on a purely narrative one it disappoints. Just because the characters are randomly thrown together by fate doesn't mean they don't deserve some kind of back-story or history. It would have made the movie's last act feel much fuller and have given more of an impact, as the various twists and casualties would have been an earned result of spending so much time with these characters. Instead, it's just a lark.

Not that the lack of characterization takes away all that much from "The Purge," and in fact, the lack of specific details makes the possibilities for future films in this world seemingly endless. There are a couple of times when characters refer to "The New Founding Fathers" and it's hard not to think about the other stories that exist within this reality. Maybe it's because of the numbing onslaught of "Paranormal Activity" and "Saw" sequels over the past decade, but maybe the most invigorating aspect of "The Purge" is how it might be the launch of the next great horror franchise, one in which subversive ideas are much more important than bottomless buckets of blood. [B+]

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14 Comments

  • Sanker From India | January 1, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    What if some psycho just for fun starts a forest fire? With no fire services for 12 hours this could easily cause HUGE long term damage!!

  • Sanker From India | January 1, 2014 12:54 PMReply

    Horrible movie

  • Ben Humpert | June 26, 2013 6:14 PMReply

    Mr. Taylor must be terminally stupid or just have watched his first "horror" movie.

    "The Purge" manages to be smart ...: Smart? How? What is smart about shelter-like walls you can easily rip out of the building with a normal car? What is smart about telling the actors to look suspicious when they're being watched from behind by the enemy? What is smart about not teaching your kid that he tried to save one life (foreigner) but caused another ones (Daddy)? What is smart about running around with your revolver while having a pumpgun or holding it like a lawn trimmer? What is smart about having "the best" security system but not having nightvision goggles or an emergency generator or these battery driven emergency lights (rich?) americans like to have? What is smart about a well tested security system which you can completely evade by using one simple car? I guess a grenade would have destroyed the whole house. And have the people ever heard about a panic room? Too expensive? Not necessary? Sure ...

    "The Purge" manages to be ... scary ...: Really? Scary? If you think so go and check if you've lost your balls little princess! If that movie is scary you might also have a thunder buddy like Ted, don't you?!
    When I was a teenager the first Scream movie scared me. The second one too but just a bit. The next movie which scared me was The Grey. Everything between was ok but not scary. Why? Because you see it coming.
    The "scary" scenes of The Purge were extremely predictable: "Oooh, he has that weird looking. Then someone must be watching him from behind!" - Or the scene the daughter hides below the bed - I remembered Taken and knew they could catch her any second. Nothing happened. "Oooh, she has that weird looking. Then someone must be watching her from behind - especially because you saw him watching her from behind some scenes before!"
    Did the "machete to the stomach" scene surprise you? Really? Did you forget that the house was full of enemies, thus behind every corner one of them could wait for you!?!

    At least there was ONE good scene: When Daddy spend free headshots to be sure the freaks are 100% dead.

    The movie portrayed Daddy as a intelligent and professional security engineer/salesman thus you expect that such a person have an emergency generator, emergency lights or at least nightvision goggles (hey, even that stupid kid had them). You also expect that these steel walls were installed a little bit more professional. It is very unlogical that all his neighbors are so damn stupid that they think this security system is secure - again you can evade it using ONE standard car. What would happen if a crazy guy steals a truck (or owns one) and drives it into that house? I think it would bend ... errr ... collapse.

    And yeah: If you have an intruder run around with your flashlight on so he can see you coming.

    Perhaps I hate that movie because I hate dump people. People like the Sandins. Sadly only Daddy died.

  • Kenneth Ziedman | June 9, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    This reviewer is either on the take or a complete moron...perhaps both.
    This is a horrible movie made by complete mental midgets.

  • Jack | June 10, 2013 2:48 PM

    You are right.. only your likes and dislikes are valid.. I cant believe this Critic would ever go against your opinion. All hail the honorable K. Zeidman

    I liked the film, it was different, it made me scream at the characters for being dumb in a lot of situation, it was overacted, it was predictable. But it was fun.. i went in knowing it was not high art.

  • I.Zombie | June 5, 2013 7:37 AMReply

    I saw the movie last night at a pre-showing and I loved it. It did a great job of telling a great story and had you at the edge of your sit a few times. I took my mom to it and she loved it, and made her jump a few times. Most of the critics that are giving it bad reviews don't know what they are talking about. Most critics are to dumb and have there heads so far up there a** that they can not even see the movie they are suppose to be reviewing.

    Thank you and God Bless

  • Sanker From India | January 1, 2014 12:55 PM

    If some guy collects a bunch of small kids in his apartment before the purge, it would be ok for him to rape and murder them as long as he does it in the 12 hours? How does that help reduce crime?

  • Franker | June 4, 2013 10:31 PMReply

    This reviewer always loves garbage.

  • Anne | June 4, 2013 5:11 PMReply

    I saw commercials and thought "Series 7:The Contender" lite. I'm seeing horrid reviews on other sites and this site says its okay. I'm with Arch-more reviews needed. That said, I don't even know what to make of the women and African American (singular) in this movie. Going by Mitch's view, but being an African American woman, I'm thinking "Hey we got in without a stereotype!"

  • Mitch | June 4, 2013 3:22 PMReply

    I couldn't disagree more. I saw this film about 2 months ago, and I was greatly anticipating it. However, I found it to be almost unbearable. This is all personal opinion, and I respect anyones, but for me, the whole undertaking was a bit too ignorantly racist and misogynistic for my liking. Having the one African-American character as the capture, and the women who serve absolutely no purpose to the plot (and can't even defend themselves or take charge in doing so (not in the slightest)), i was a bit perturbed by the execution. The antagonists weren't as creepy as they were pointless and annoying, and the sub-plots were expendable.

    I did like the Utopian society with a dark secret idea, but again, the execution was weak and the character development even weaker. I had similar thoughts to the comments prior to mine: it is Panic Room meets Assault on Precinct 13, but not as riveting, and could use a David Fincher-touch.

  • Dan S | June 4, 2013 11:57 AMReply

    Sounds like another remake of "Assault on Precinct 13" to me.

  • Arch | June 4, 2013 11:54 AMReply

    I'd agree that the Assault remake wasn't as terrible as other remakes in the genre (which wasn't that hard by the way) but saying it was underrated seems overstretched (especially considering its more-than-descent 60% on RT).
    Anyway aside from the "purge" it seem SO Assault inspired that I may need a few more reviews...

  • ORF | June 4, 2013 11:51 AMReply

    "who sells and installs home security systems" = Forrest Wittaker's character in Panic Room, which is a great (rather new?) trope in thrillers. It evens the playing field against the real bad guys, implies a certain depth of character, and simply is an interesting job.

    Intrigued by this movie. Good marketing campaign, good cast, good concept. The subway ads here in NY are probably the most disturbing - and intriguing - I've seen. They sell you the concept with two solid tag-lines and then let you chew on a visual of a villain doing the "Clockwork Orange" leer. Blumhouse is good at what they do. Thanks for the review - will see.

  • tom | June 4, 2013 11:17 AMReply

    just go on vacay during the purge right

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