The Purge

The Purge

***1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

The latest genre effort to be credited to and sold under Insidious/Sinister production team Blumfield Productions, writer/director James DeMonaco’s sci-fi thriller is a refreshing step away from the company’s usual haunted house theatrics. Reuniting the sophomore director with his Staten Island star Ethan Hawke and featuring a bravura turn from a post-Dredd invigorated Lena Headey, The Purge starts like a Verhoeven satire before delving into uncomfortable Peckinpah catharsis. It doesn’t quite have the courage of its class-skewering convictions and runs out of steam well before its underwhelming climax, but The Purge is a novel take on home invasion and a disturbingly prescient commentary on our TV-nurtured relationship to violence.

For one night a year, America’s new founding fathers have decreed that emergency services will shut down and (almost) all crime will be legal, allowing society to vent its pent-up fury and ‘purge’ their country of its undesirables. This ritual has made a rich man of James Sandin, whose affluent suburban neighbours are all protected by his company’s high-tech security systems. Sandin is settling in for a quiet night of lockdown with his wife and two children, when an injured man appears on the lawn, pleading for help. As a group of preppy murderers descend upon them, the Sandins must wrestle with their conscience if they want to survive the night.

Copy picture

A credits montage (creepily scored with classical music) blurs staged security cam tapes with what could well be real news footage to alarming effect, instantly highlighting how many people would love to indulge in such wanton chaos, just as many would be glued to their screens watching it. From here we meet Sandin on a high having come out top on security sales for the year, the amusingly jaunty adverts for the ‘holiday’ he depends upon ringing out in the background of his plush car.

If the central conceit seems far-fetched on paper, DeMonaco’s handling of it in these early scenes makes it all too easy to buy into: his 2022 America is recognisable as a direct descendant of today’s, with many of its concerns (unemployment, overpopulation, economic crash) reflected in passing shards of political satire.

The tension mounts inexorably for much of the duration, but once the siege itself begins, predictable jolts and rote violence take over, with the script’s messages becoming blunted as the action moves increasingly into the open. The unremittingly dark cinematography and emphasis on tight close-ups keeps the viewer on their toes but also makes the film feel cheaper than it actually is, while the visceral shakey-cam tactics deployed for the gunsblazing, axe-swinging finale sometimes makes it hard to tell what the hell’s happening to whom, even when the outcome of each skirmish is so predictable.

Despite running at a brisk 85 minutes, the plot often feels stretched, with the family too often making rash decisions to split up and reduced to stumbling around dark corridors. There’s a contradictory strain to the nastiness too, with one early slaying in particular being swept under the carpet and its victim’s motivations failing to chime with the rest of the story.

The tackling of class and wealth envy is also a little cack-handed; the believably smug residents of the area are a pointed mix of ethnicities – each couple is a mixed-race marriage,

DeMonaco showing how money earned takes precedence over minority background – but their ivory tower pettiness seems too obvious, while the Sandins’ shallow nature sits uneasily with their eventual transition into moral crusaders. Edwin Hodge isn’t given much to do either as the pivotal homeless stranger, his characterisation as non-existent as his apparent capacity for suffering is limitless.

For all its flaws though, The Purge is for the most part an exciting and thought-provoking thriller, anchored by strong performances from Hawke (who seems to be developing some agreeable genre affinity), an increasingly Ripley-fied Headey and young Aussie import Rhys Wakefield as a skin-crawling rich-kid killer. It’s refreshing that DeMonaco doesn’t exploit the sexual threat that usually bogs down these thrillers (see Straw Dogs and Last House On The Left), and if he runs out of ideas halfway through, he does at least keep pulses racing thereafter. It’s not going to supplant inspirations like Assault On Precinct 13, but DeMonaco shows commendable assurance as both writer and director, and will surely go on to further fulfil his potential.

Reviewed on: 05 Jun 2013
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The Purge packshot
A family is held hostage for harboring the target of a murderous syndicate during the Purge, a 12-hour period in which any and all crime is legal.
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